Sir Geoffrey Clifton-BrownMain Page: Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Conservative) - The Cotswolds)
Department Debates - View all Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown's debates with the Department for Transport
I thank the hon. Lady for her support and, through her, thank Oxfordshire County Council for the support it has given this taskforce. I believe that option 5 allows a significant improvement to services around the Oxford area. I will come on to some of the environmental benefits of the scheme. She may well want to call a similar debate at some point in the future on the proposals she is making.
I do not know the details of the proposals the hon. Lady is making, but I do know that the benefit to cost ratio of this scheme is well over 4:1. That is with a cost estimate of just under £200 million for the whole option 5 scheme, including an optimism bias in the cost estimates. The five counties supporting the taskforce, including Oxfordshire, are home to more than 2.5 million people, and their economic gross value added is greater than that of the West Midlands Combined Authority and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Moreover, they are only asking for half the budget from the Department for Transport.
As I mentioned, there are clear environmental benefits. As train travel increases, it will take cars off the road. Currently, my West Worcestershire constituents travel miles along the congested motorway network just to get to Warwick Parkway and Birmingham International stations so that they can use the Chiltern line and the west coast main line. The strategic outline business case goes into detail on the benefits to the road system, and estimates that 5 million miles of highway driving would be avoided. Indeed, the delivery of the Worcestershire Parkway station—it is due to open any day, and I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to come and officiate at its opening—will strengthen the case for more travellers across south Worcestershire to use the North Cotswold line.
There will be huge tourism benefits, as the line goes through some of the loveliest countryside in the world. It passes the cathedral city of Oxford and goes on to the cathedral cities of Worcester and Hereford. It goes through the heart of the beautiful Cotswolds, near Blenheim Palace and, of course, through the glorious Malvern hills. There will also be huge housing benefits. The scheme will increase the affordability of housing for those working in Oxford, by giving them the opportunity to commute by rail from less expensive areas. In short, it will unleash the potential of the midlands engine and link it to the Oxford-Cambridge arc corridor, connecting it all more reliably, more frequently and more quickly to London, the Crossrail network and Heathrow.
My only ask of the Minister today is that he agree to pay half of the develop stage costs and allow the proposed scheme into the industry’s rail network enhancements pipeline. With that funding, an outline business case and a structural survey can be prepared for 2022. A commitment from his Department of only £1.5 million of the £3 million cost—taskforce members will pay the other half—will enable that progress.
I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister sees how compelling option 5 is in terms of value for money, the environmental benefit and the country’s productivity. The proposals are sensible, modest but impactful, and achievable in the tangible future. When he makes his case to the Chancellor, he will be making it to a friendly Worcestershire colleague, and he will know just how many other colleagues will be pleased by approving further progress on this wonderful train line.
I did not originally intend to speak in this debate. One notable thing about this place is that quite often Members of Parliament stand up to speak because although everything has already been said, not everyone has already said it; so I will try to avoid repeating the incredibly excellent points made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin)—my own MP—who initiated the debate, which is a really important one for the local economy, and by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). Both have interests in this matter, because the track runs through their constituencies, and they are working extraordinarily hard to champion this scheme. However, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire about it affecting other constituencies is incredibly important. Although Wyre Forest is in the northern part of Worcestershire, it will benefit very significantly from the opportunity created by the doubling of the track.
I want to make just a couple of points. I raised in an intervention on my hon. Friend the interest of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership. I did not want to catch her unawares with that, but it struck me that the more people we get behind this scheme, the better it is in terms of making the business case for what is not actually a very big ask from the group involved. Because the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP also covers the northern part of Worcestershire—Wyre Forest, Redditch and Bromsgrove—it takes in two of the stations that will benefit, Droitwich Spa and Kidderminster, which will benefit from being able to feed into this line through Worcester. Therefore there is an economic interest for that LEP and I will certainly make representations to it in order that it throws its weight behind the scheme.
My other point is on the benefit to local economies. If people look at the economies along this track and to the north, going towards the Black Country, they will see that we suffer from a number of different things, one of which is lower than average regional wages, particularly in Wyre Forest; that is something I have been particularly aware of. One thing that we are trying to do in the whole of Worcestershire, through the Worcestershire LEP, is to attract more businesses into the area and therefore bring up training, productivity, wages and general wealth and wellbeing for the county. It is well known that the best way to do that is to create infrastructure links. People will not be attracted to come to a county if they cannot get their workers in and the training in and their products in and out, and rail is certainly an incredibly important part of that. And if we free up the road networks by having more people travelling by rail, that benefits the economy as well as the environment. It is incredibly important that we all throw our weight behind this scheme, for so many different reasons, and it is incredibly important that we are having this debate now.
I shall ask just one question. There is obviously the rather peculiar debate going on at the moment about the £105 billion that is being put into HS2. That is not without controversy, and I do not particularly want to make a controversial speech, but I remember that when I was on the Treasury Committee a few years ago, we did an investigation into the value of spending what was then £52 billion, if I remember rightly—I think it was actually lower than that, but let us say that it was £52 billion—on HS2. Were we actually going to get value for money out of it? There was a very strong argument for it, and Andy Street, the Mayor of Birmingham, is arguing very vehemently in favour of that part of HS2 going up to Birmingham—I would agree with him on that.
However, the interesting question now is this. If we were to start the argument from the other end and say that we had £105 billion to spend on the rail network, would we build HS2 or would we spend that money on exactly this type of project and, indeed, other projects whereby we could extend reach down to places such as the far west or to East Anglia and other parts of the country that will not benefit from HS2? I think it is worth using this debate to highlight that point. Although HS2 is a very exciting project, it is not necessarily what we would have spent £105 billion on if we had started with the offer of the money. We may well have started by spending it on this type of project in order to get more—
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am not suggesting that we should scrap HS2 to pay for this scheme. He is absolutely right: we need to do an awful lot of different things. I was just trying to give a slightly different viewpoint on the whole HS2 argument. Actually, I think interregional connectivity is the most important point.
I will not take up any more of the House’s time; as I said, this is a really important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire for initiating the debate. The scheme is really important. It will make a big difference to a lot of constituencies that are not on the track but will benefit. My hon. Friend and everyone who represents a constituency along the track can 100% rely on my support for the scheme and my support in trying to get the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP to come in behind it as well.
Break in Debate
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning Crossrail, because it is important that we think about the integration between London stopping services and the wider countryside beyond London and beyond major towns and cities.
The taskforce made a convincing case for track doubling on parts of the line, as we have heard. Currently, the single-track line on parts of the route does have an impact on the quality of services. What is proposed would come at a cost, but, as we have heard, with a very high benefit to cost ratio. It is worth noting—certainly we have noted—the very high benefit to cost ratio, at 4.46:1. That is unusually high, so the hon. Lady and other colleagues have made a very good point on that, and I hope the Minister considers the relative strength of the case.
The enhancements would also allow an increase in the speed and frequency of services along the line, as we have heard. The taskforce’s business case pointed out that the benefits would be felt by not only passengers, but the local economy. I think it quantified that at about £33 million annually for the economy and the area, and there would also be the creation of about 750 new jobs, which is quite a substantial benefit. We need to consider what this scheme means in real terms to the area, as well as to the wider network and the country as a whole.
It is obviously now up to the Department to look at the scheme—I urge it to do so seriously—and to decide whether to include it in its pipeline of enhancements and to commence the development stage, which, as we have heard from hon. Members, is the next step. Moving the scheme on to that phase will require an additional £3 million initially.
This scheme exemplifies how investments in public transport can bring massive benefit to communities across the country, but that should not be the preserve of just some areas. There should be a system-wide examination of the benefits of this type of scheme for all the UK. Investment in rail should stretch across all nations and regions of the UK. We hope, as hon. Members have described, that that will support other local economies, in counties, groups of towns and cities around Britain, and deal with the problem of rising inequality.
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Increased investment in rail is required to tackle air pollution and the climate crisis, as the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) mentioned. According to the Government’s climate change advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, the Government are not on track to meet their emissions targets, which themselves are insufficiently ambitious to meet the objectives we all have set ourselves.
Transport, as was rightly mentioned, is the most emitting and worst-performing sector of the economy. It is an obvious target for us. There is a potential benefit economically and environmentally, and the hon. Gentleman made that point eloquently. Despite improving technology, transport emissions are rising. There is a serious risk of over-emphasising road transport—with the road schemes in the pipeline currently highlighted by the Government—rather than rail, which is a low-emitting sector.
If the Government are serious about cutting emissions, they must put their money where their mouth is. Unfortunately, Government policy in the last decade has taken us in the wrong direction. Regulated rail fares have risen by over 40% since 2010—more than 2.5 times the rate of increase in median wages. At the same time, overcrowding has increased, and reliability has declined. Rail travel is becoming unaffordable for many people, who are priced off the railway. Those who do travel by rail have to spend more of their income in real terms.
The policies Labour presented at the general election would address many of these issues. That complements my point about investment in particular parts of the country. Bringing the railway back into public ownership would improve services and deal with the timetabling chaos suffered by communities in the north of England last year. We would also have cut regulated rail fares by 33% from January 2020 and delivered a simple London-style ticketing system, which I am sure residents in the north Cotswolds would much appreciate as they travel in and out of the south-east or across their region.
Other countries are already tackling these issues. In Germany, where the railway is under public ownership, the Government recently made a substantial cut in rail fares, specifically as a climate protection measure. That complements expanding rail provision in under-served parts of the country. I would like the Minister to consider that approach. I hope he will take note of my points today in the same way I am sure he will take note of the specific regional issues in the north Cotswolds.
I hope the Minister will consider other policies where I believe we have the wrong balance between rail and other modes of transport. For example, the Government have repeatedly frozen fuel duty for private vehicles and, effectively, air passenger duty, at the same time as allowing rail fares to rise and cutting subsidies for buses. As the hon. Member for The Cotswolds hinted, there is a wider issue of connectivity to other public transport services, both into London and within shires, including better bus services. What steps will the Minister take to reduce the cost of rail travel, and reconsider the balance between rail and other modes of transport?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about connectivity to bicycle hire. Cycling can be supported by sensible policies that promote it and link it to rail travel and bus use. As I am standing in as shadow Minister for local transport, I refer him to the recent Labour manifesto on those matters. At least as a fellow cyclist, it is worth considering the need for greater investment in cycling.
I understand the Minister is interested in reversing some of the Beeching cuts. There is some merit in exploring that, but it must be matched by funding. Conservative Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East have articulated the need for funding. I urge the Minister to look at the broader funding envelope for the Department and the relative weighting of spending on rail as opposed to road. He may want to shed some light on various aspects of that, particularly his plans to reopen branch lines in addition to dualing existing railway lines.
If the Government are serious about boosting rail connectivity, the Minister must look at the pot of money the Government have available for road enhancements, which is taken from hypothecated money from vehicle excise duty. There is an argument for spending some of that on public transport. We have already suggested that a proportion of it be spent on subsidising bus use, which has recently declined, but there might also be a good case for some of that funding to be hypothecated for rail, considering the obvious points that have been made, as rail can often provide an excellent alternative for rural residents who wish to make long journeys and avoid our congested motorway network. Sadly, at the moment, we are not following the right approach, and we need to look at that balance again.
I commend Conservative Members for highlighting the needs within the north Cotswold area. They have made an excellent point about their railway line. I urge the Minister to consider the weighting of Government spending. I hope he will address such points and the wider package of support for branch lines and other smaller rail routes. I urge him to reconsider, to make a commitment to boost investment in the railway significantly and to cut fares to make rail travel more attractive.
Break in Debate
I shall have to remove a number of pages from my speech, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—I shall obviously obey your indication from the Chair and ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) has plenty of time to answer the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I shall now call her the vice-president of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group—“vice-president” is a proper title, even though it is unpaid. She is certainly showing that she is unbelievable value for money, as I am sure the cost-benefit reports she detailed in her speech show for this particular scheme. I congratulate her on the point she made, and I will go into some detail in my speech. My answer will get somewhere along the line towards where she wants to be.
A lot of Members have taken part in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) was instrumental in earlier improvements to the line we are discussing. I am sure that more than a bench on a station will be named after him for his contribution and his work in the area. He reminded us that the ultimate goal is to have journeys between Worcester—I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), is in Westminster Hall this afternoon—and London coming in at under two hours, which is what everybody should expect of a modern-day railway.
My hon. Friend talked wisely about the environment and how trains are a way of reducing car journeys. Actually, I think he would be proud at how much greener our rolling stock is becoming by the day. We have a huge amount of new rolling stock—I think it is about a thousand carriages—coming on to our network this year, so there will be a much greener network at the end of the year.
Yes, indeed. I am pleased to hear they have noted the difference, because, at the end of the day, these are relatively expensive vehicles, so it is nice to know that they are worth what we pay for them and provide good value for money for the taxpayer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) is no longer in his place; he apologised for leaving, but he had to go to another meeting. He wisely made the point that the Department for Transport needs as much stakeholder involvement in these schemes as possible. It would therefore be good if he could prod the local enterprise partnership for Greater Birmingham and Solihull to provide support, because the scheme would benefit this whole geographical area. My hon. Friend also made some points about High Speed 2, but that is not part of my brief, and it is a bit controversial, so I will duck that one completely.
There were other contributions, including interventions. Brief contributions were made by the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds). It is very kind of her to come along and support her “hon. Friends” on the Government side, and there are a lot of hon. Friends on the Government side, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary for the Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who has been itching to speak in the debate, but who has not been allowed to. However, it is fair to say that there is a voice close to the Department that is very positive about the benefits that can flow from this debate and indeed from the improvements to this line.
Then there is the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda). We have never really tangled in debate before, so I welcome him to his position—I believe he has been elevated or, at the very least, that his brief now encompasses more things. Everything that I have heard about him leads me to believe he is an honourable and decent man who actually wants to improve our railways and has some sensible suggestions to do that. I look forward to engaging with him on this issue.
The shadow Minister obviously knows a lot about our railways, so I am sure he has seen that there is a huge amount of investment in them. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, £48 billion will be invested in this five-year control period. That is a huge amount to improve our existing railways, quite apart from the huge schemes on the cards to build new capacity around the country.
The shadow Minister also made a point about fares. I have seen what has been going on in Germany, but I remind him that, in this country, 98p of every pound spent in fares is reinvested back into transport and specifically into the railways. So someone’s fare—any fare—is almost an investment in the railways themselves. However, there is a debate to be had about this issue. I welcome that debate, and I look forward to debating this issue with him.
The shadow Minister made a number of points about the road networks and other things that are way beyond my brief. Just as with one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest, I will duck those issues in today’s debate and stick to the issue we are here to discuss.
Having said that, there was a point about cycling, which is in my brief, even if it is not part of this debate. I just wanted to back up the point my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds made about how we can connect cycling to the railways so much more than we do currently. Last week, I was privileged to go to the Cycle Rail Awards. Yes, there is such an event; it is a proper, red-carpet event—nothing but the best for the Rail Minister. It was really encouraging to see all the cycling schemes now being delivered up and down our railways, increasing capacity so that people can cycle to the railway and park their bicycle. There are also schemes whereby people can rent cycles. People can come out of a city and rent a cycle to enjoy the countryside, before returning the bike at the end of the day—please. There is a lot of investment in this area as well, so it was good to hear it being highlighted in the debate.
However, I guess I should actually talk about the meat of this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire presented a typically eloquent and persuasive argument for investment in the railway line between Oxford and Worcester. Although the debate is about the transformation of the North Cotswold line, it would be remiss of me not to begin by remarking on the renaissance the route has experienced over the last 10 years—my hon. Friend alluded to it in her speech, and it is quite spectacular.
At one stage in the 1970s, there was just one through train to London from Worcester each day, which meant the line lived up to its nickname of “Old, Worse and Worse”. From that low point, the route and the services on it have all seen slow—quite slow—but steady improvement. Now, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the North Cotswold Line Taskforce, it is going from strength to strength.
The real catalyst for the revival of the route was the Government’s investment in 2012, which reinstated sections of double-track railway that had previously been cut back—my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds was vociferous in campaigning for that to happen. The increase in capacity was made to improve performance on the route. However, it also enabled Great Western Railway to gradually introduce progressive enhancement of train services.
Fast forward to 2019 and we have seen more investment from the Government in the North Cotswold route and across the whole Great Western Railway network. We are investing over £5 billion to deliver better services and new trains, with thousands more seats, improving over 100 million rail journeys each year and stimulating—as all my hon. Friends have alluded to—economic growth from London through the Thames valley to the Cotswolds, as well as to the west country and south Wales. Our investment has provided 4,900 extra seats into London in the peak hour, which is a 40% increase in capacity.