Transport Infrastructure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:45 pm on 11 February 2020.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 12:45, 11 February 2020

I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement.

Once again, we see the Government taking ideas from the Labour party, adopting our language, but falling a very long way short on the substance of it. This is a Government who are unwilling to make the scale of investment needed to revive parts of this country that have been decimated by successive Conservative Governments. This is a Government who have proved themselves unable to manage infrastructure projects properly and incapable of keeping a lid on the costs.

Today’s piecemeal announcements do not add up to a serious plan to rebalance the economy or to tackle the serious climate emergency that we all face. They do not even come close to repairing the damage done by a decade of Tory Government—[Interruption.] Well, it is true—they know it. The Prime Minister laments our inadequate infrastructure, yet it is his party that has been starving the country of investment over the past 10 years, resulting in the worst regional inequality in Europe. Today, the Prime Minister is selling his announcement as a prize for parts of the midlands and the north. I simply tell him this: people in those regions to whom he promised so much in the general election are going to be sorely disappointed when they see what actually happens.

Let us take HS2, for example. The Labour party supports HS2 as a means to boost regional economies and to reduce climate emissions. It is essential for boosting rail capacity and freeing up other lines for increased freight use and so on, but we do not see why the Government should get a slap on the back for announcing that it is going ahead. After all, it is only because of the abject failure of successive Conservative Governments to keep on top of the costs that the project’s future was put in doubt in the first place.

Today’s proposed boardroom shake-up comes far too late to avoid the public having to fork out tens of billions more than was forecast in the first place. It is money that has already been wasted because of the incompetence of this Tory Government and their predecessors. The leaked Oakervee review, which apparently will come out later, was correct to say that HS2 must be fully integrated as part of the modern railway system. It must extend to the great northern cities, linking up with Northern Powerhouse Rail, and eventually to Scotland to end the need for domestic flying in this country at the earliest possible opportunity.

We are concerned that the links to Manchester and Leeds are now under review and could, reportedly, be even downgraded. HS2 must be developed with more sensitivity to local communities and much more sensitivity to the environmental impact, particularly on modern and ancient woodlands across the country. If it is to have public support, the fares on HS2 must be affordable and comparable with the rest of the fare system on the railway network. Will the Prime Minister tell us where the trains will be built? Will those jobs and training be done in this country? What about other parts of the country such as, for example, the far south-west? When will the Prime Minister match the £2.5 billion commitment to upgrade the Great Western main line as our only train line into the south-west? We need better connectivity beyond Bristol to Devon and Cornwall.

We believe that the case is now unanswerable that our railways should be publicly owned and publicly run, to improve the service and to cut fares by 33%. Does the Prime Minister recognise that too many people are simply priced off the railways? The average commuter is now paying £3,067 for their season ticket, £873 more than when the Conservatives came into office in 2010. Why will the Prime Minister not cut the cost of travelling? Why should people in Britain have to pay so much for expensive fares—much more expensive than those in any other comparable country?

When I first raised the question of buses at Prime Minister’s Question Time, I was ridiculed by many Tory MPs and by many in our media. From the look of the front pages of our papers today, those same quarters now regard the focus on buses as a political masterstroke. Well, I will take the credit for it. It is fine. In reality, however, what the Government have said today about buses is frankly woeful. They have cherry-picked policies from the Labour manifesto but have underfunded them. That does not make up for the deep cuts since 2010. Funding for buses has fallen by £645 million a year in real terms since 2010, 3,300 routes have been cut or withdrawn, and fares have soared at two and a half times the rate of average wages.

It is councils that keep bus routes open. We need long- term funding for local authorities, which have suffered such severe cuts and now face a further £8 billion black hole over this Parliament because of underfunding. The Government are still refusing to give all councils the powers to improve local bus services and the option of public ownership of their services.

On cycling, all the Prime Minister is actually offering is 250 miles of cycle routes. Our manifesto promised 3,300 miles of cycle routes all across the country. Again, that is just plain inadequate from this Government.

Underinvestment by the Conservatives has created problems that they are forced to acknowledge, but they simply are not serious about fixing them. Is regional inequality going to be solved by 10 freeports? Is this not just a gimmick creating the storage spaces for the super-rich to dodge taxes and launder money?

The Prime Minister is clearly fond of announcing big shiny projects, such as the scheme to build a bridge over the Irish sea. Why not go the whole hog and make it a garden bridge, connected to an airport in the sea? It stands as much chance of actually being built as any of those failed projects put forward by the former Mayor of London. Or why not make it a cable car between Scotland and Northern Ireland, or better still a giant zip wire? The Prime Minister could be the first to try it out.

The saddest thing about today’s announcement is the high likelihood that so much of it will not be delivered, with the Prime Minister demanding 5% cuts in the very Departments that are supposed to carry out these policies. I fear that the communities that desperately need investment in new infrastructure will be let down when today’s headlines become yesterday’s news and they find that nothing has changed.