National Networks National Policy Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:41 pm on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (AI and Intellectual Property) 4:41, 26 March 2024

It is a pleasure to be able to speak briefly in this afternoon’s important debate on transport infrastructure. It is a great pleasure to follow the Chair of the Transport Committee, Iain Stewart. I will be brief, but I want to make a number of points to support the shadow Transport Minister, my hon. Friend Bill Esterson, and to highlight the importance of investing in infrastructure to support economic growth.

First, I will raise a few points that matter to my constituents, some of which are immediate because they happened this week. There were severe delays on the Great Western main line yesterday. A number of colleagues, myself and many thousands of commuters were left waiting for long periods, in some cases up to two hours, because of a problem with the electricity supply to the overhead wires. That has happened a number of times before for various reasons. I urge the Minister to consult with the Rail Minister and feed back the serious concerns of travellers on this vital piece of infrastructure. The line connects London with towns in the south-east, such as Reading, and is of strategic importance across the whole UK, connecting Wales, Bristol, the south-west and parts of the midlands with the capital city. It is vital that train travellers can rely on this excellent service, which normally allows swift and easy access to the heart of London. It is now supported by the Elizabeth line, which is a huge benefit to us all. However, there has been a series of issues with the overhead wires, which I hope the Minister will flag up. Will he or a colleague write to me to update me on the problems experienced by passengers and to highlight the action being taken to address them?

On a related issue of regional and national infrastructural importance, I wanted to flag up the importance of getting a sensible policy on smart motorways. In my part of England, we have had a smart motorway installed along the M4 from west London as far west as Theale, just beyond Reading. Unfortunately, the work was carried out using the revised specification, which puts refuges up to a mile apart. In my opinion and that of many critics, that is too far apart to be genuinely safe. Will the Minister look at that policy again? Other parts of the south of England have been affected by a similar approach to upgrading the motorway, such as the M27 around Southampton, Portsmouth and neighbouring towns. Again, unfortunately, when the work was carried out, a revised spec was used rather than the original one, which had more frequent refuge points. Will the Minister write to me and colleagues on that matter, which is of great importance to our region and to the country as a whole?

Those two significant issues relate to existing infrastructure. My third issue relates to forthcoming infrastructure. I urge the Minister to implore his colleagues to get the Government’s act together on the electrification of vehicles. Obviously, the Government backtracked on the 2030 target—sadly and wrongly, in my opinion—and in addition they have made matters worse by not achieving the intermediate steps they set out such as putting in a suitable number of charging points at motorway service areas. Range anxiety continues to be a major problem and is delaying the purchase and uptake of electric vehicles in many cases. It would be good if the Minister updated colleagues on progress.

I understand that the Government have not achieved their target of about six charging points in each service area—that seems a low bar—and that we may have something like four per service area on average at the moment. Even if six were achieved, that would be way below the potential needed for vehicles if they are truly to be electrified quickly and effectively so that we can hit our targets for tackling the climate emergency and boost British production of electric cars, which is a success story in our motor industry.

Those are some key strategic issues. If I may, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will mention some areas not directly covered by the policy statement but that many consider strategic priorities. We have the appalling state of the road network as a whole with the increase in potholes, which has possibly been exacerbated by heavy rain and frosts this winter. That is a huge challenge for the country as a whole. It affects many motorists, with people having to pay for expensive repairs, and it is a huge safety issue for both motorists and cyclists. I urge the Minister to look at that again, as well as at the speed at which the backlog in potholes is being tackled, and to support local authorities taking a more progressive and imaginative approach. My council, Reading Borough Council, has approached potholes with an “invest to save” mentality, doing large sections rather than just filling in individual potholes, and that seems to be tackling the backlog more effectively than some neighbouring authorities—Oxfordshire and Wokingham in particular—which are somewhat behind with their pothole filling.

Other matters that many people see as strategically important but are not under the statement’s remit include the encouraging of walking and cycling. Only 1% of the transport budget is spent on those important areas, yet their benefits to the country are huge. As we heard earlier when considering the Pedicabs (London) Bill, shifting people from cars to cycling allows more road space for those who do have to drive—we are not able to create much more road space—takes pollution out of the atmosphere, which is vital, and can improve road safety and people’s health and fitness. That is hugely important for the country, yet it gets only 1% of transport spending. Surely we should be looking at that again and trying to encourage it.

That includes improving safety in particular for pedestrians and for women at night by improving lighting, crossings and other measures. In my constituency, I commend local councillors, and Will Cross in Redlands ward in particular, who has ably championed the need for a pedestrian crossing on Upper Redlands Road. It should not take that much effort from a dedicated councillor to deliver something like that; it should be much more routine, with more pots of money available, and be considered in aggregate a national priority. Even if individual schemes are small, their overall effect is significant.

Thank you for indulging me slightly on those last few points, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the chance to speak and appreciate the Minister offering to write to me on some of the more immediate and significant matters.