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Rail Services (Hastings)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:43 pm on 17th June 2011.

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Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 2:43 pm, 17th June 2011

It is a pleasure to respond to the Adjournment debate this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend Amber Rudd on securing it, although sadly she has probably drawn the short straw, because I am the duty Minister—I have responsibility for shipping and roads. She does not have the mechanic with the oily rag responding to this debate. I apologise to her for that, but that is what happens on a Friday. She has been lucky in the ballot, but perhaps unlucky in many other ways. I am sure that the Minister of State would be more than happy to meet the action group and the hon. Members responsible for that part of Kent as we move forward.

My brief says how wonderful it is to live in Sussex and that part of Kent. As someone who fished on the beaches of Hastings on many occasions as a young man, I can honestly say that it is a beautiful place to visit as well. Indeed, the tourism industry is very important to that part of the world. However, we are not talking about living there; we are talking about ensuring that the economy grows, and I am very well aware of the social deprivation that still hinders growth in that part of the country.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the history of the line goes back a long way. The lack of investment probably started right at the outset, because the Hastings line was built in a hurry in the 1850s, and it was not built particularly well, even when connections were made with it. It was not part of a network and it meandered from village to village. It was almost a forgotten line, even when it was being built. It was the Brighton line that attracted a lot of investment. The Department is well aware of the problems that still exist on the line from Tunbridge Wells to Hastings.

My hon. Friend should not underestimate the power of the argument that she makes on behalf of her constituents. It has been heard loud and clear in the Department, and I suggest that it would not hurt if the campaign were to up the ante. The case is obvious: there are real logistical problems and they affect growth. There are also real problems with investment, and my hon. Friend mentioned the difficult financial situation that we found ourselves in when we formed the coalition a year ago.

I know that local residents and MPs would like not to have to involve Thameslink in these discussions, but I am afraid that we have to, simply because Thameslink represents a major piece of investment to which the Government are committed. It will have an effect on the income of whoever is running the franchise in that part of the world and, as the Secretary of State said in his statement, it would be difficult to go ahead with a long franchise without knowing what is going to happen to Thameslink and Crossrail. It would be foolish to do so. We have seen too many franchises issued over the years without a proper cost analysis and without any evidence base. We are conscious of the need for a sustainable, longer franchise. My hon. Friend referred to the integrated Kent franchise, which is commonly known as the IKF.

Until I started to read this brief last night, I had no idea what the IKF was, but I certainly have now. We will be looking initially at a shorter contract, until the business case has been formatted. We shall issue a much longer one once the financial situation has been addressed, and once Thameslink is up and running.

Many hon. Members come to the House and simply ask for more money. It was excellent that my hon. Friend appreciated the financial problems and asked where other money could come from. I have had more than one conversation with my right hon. Friend Greg Clark on the subject of road funding, which is in my portfolio, and he will know that match funding is very much the way forward. I will take back to the Minister of State the ideas about match funding, and I am sure that that can be discussed in the meeting that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye will be seeking with the Minister. I do not personally understand the consequences of such arrangements in rail terms, but I know that match funding represents an exciting way forward for roads.

The McNulty report looked carefully at why our railways were so much more expensive than those elsewhere in Europe. My hon. Friend rightly referred to the fact that they are 40% more expensive. We must ensure that, in providing a 21st-century service, we take out some of the costs that are squeezing prices up and making life difficult for commuters. I also know that timetables are a real issue, and we will look into that matter in relation not only to the shorter franchise but further ahead as well. Understandable concerns have been expressed about Cannon Street; my briefing refers to an historic battle. According to what I read, there should not be a carte blanche “no” to Cannon Street. That matter needs further discussion, and local commuters and MPs should be involved in that.

Network Rail is committed to making improvements, and my hon. Friend mentioned some of the smaller ones that are being made. They illustrate the investment that is taking place. They will shave off a limited amount of journey time, except of course when we experience really difficult weather conditions such as those that we saw over the Christmas period. I fully take on board what she and others have said about the communication between the rail operator, the commuters and the local community not being up to scratch at that time. The report commissioned by the Secretary of State came to that conclusion as well.

There is no way that the Department—the Secretary of State, the Minister of State or me—is going to hush anything up. My hon. Friend is doing exactly what I would do—and have done in the past on behalf of my own constituents who are on the east coast main line. Sorry, I mean the west coast main line: if we were on the east coast main line, we would be some way away from my constituency! It is right and proper to raise the issues and the concerns of constituents rather than debate only the technicalities of the case. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to do that.

It is going to be difficult for me to address EU funding in this debate. If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will arrange for the Minister of State to write to her. EU funding always seems something of an anomaly to me. I see how much money we contribute and I understand that when it comes back, it tends to go into areas of social deprivation and need. It is often perceived that the south-east does not fall into that category, yet we all know that there are deprived areas in the region. There are some in my own constituency and many more in my hon. Friend’s.

In this Adjournment debate, it is right not just to talk about how much we would like to spend and how easily it could be spent, as we do not have that sort of money available. There are obvious constraints around Charing Cross, Cannon Street and London Bridge, which has had extensive works going on, and also physical constraints—the line coming in and out of London, particularly around Guy’s hospital; the major roads around the Strand; and, not least, the great river that flows past this great Palace—which considerably affect where and how we can bring trains and lines into London.

There is an obvious alternative to an expansion of those stations—particularly the investment from Transport for London and the Mayor for the underground. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns about Thameslink and its effect in curtailing what and how quickly things could be done. I think she will have to accept that Thameslink is a major piece of infrastructure, for which London has waited for some considerable time—it has been talked about since I was a lad, growing up in this great city. The Government’s decision to go ahead was courageous. We know it will have some knock-on effects, but it is not a complete block on investment elsewhere. What it must do, probably for the first time, is lock in better services coming into London from the south.

As we go forward, it is imperative that everybody is consulted. The Government do not want consultations for the sake of having consultations, as we want the public to feel engaged with them. I am going into detailed consultations at the moment on the future of the coastguard. At some stage, I suspect I might be accused of doing a U-turn, but we said at the start that if we believe in public consultations and public involvement, we cannot be completely arrogant and come out at the other end with identical processes to what went in at the start. When it comes to the consultation on future franchises and services, it is imperative that the public—that means everybody involved, from action groups to local MPs and local authorities, and, indeed, commuters—feel that they have engaged fully with it.

My hon. Friend referred to the Cinderella line. When I first read my brief, I must admit that I at first thought, “What is this Cinderella line?” Many people have strong feelings about this and will receive no consolation from me saying that it is not a Cinderella line, but a line that has an in-built historical problem stemming from the 1850s. There are limited claims that we could put in the limited funds available. Whatever schemes go forward, the early franchise agreements—I know this was a disappointment to my hon. Friend—have to be slightly shorter than we would have liked so that they can be locked in with other contracts, particularly with Thameslink.

It was important to raise this issue. I am sorry it is happening late on a Friday afternoon when everybody has disappeared. I apologise to my hon. Friend that the Minister of State is not here. Any of my hon. Friend’s points that I have not covered will be responded to in writing, and, as I have said, I am sure that the Minister of State will be more than happy to see her and any other Members representing her part of the world, along with their delegations. I commend her for standing up for her constituents as she has this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.