Net Zero Targets and Decarbonising Transport — [Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 4th February 2020.

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Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses) 10:39 am, 4th February 2020

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I urge the Minister to familiarise himself with her work as the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport. The public are further ahead on this matter than we parliamentarians, so it is important that we address these issues. Let me make one further point about the strategic nature of our dependence on road and the policy mistakes so far. There is a stark contrast between the effective subsidy for road use and the use of carbon-powered transport—through the effective cut to petrol duty—and the lack of subsidy for rail travel and other forms of public transport.

To turn to rail, the Scottish National party spokesman, Gavin Newlands, made an excellent point about the need for rail electrification. In my own region of south and south-west England, there is a clear contrast with other parts of the UK. On the railway line just beyond Reading, the electrification abruptly stops at Newbury, which is a long way from the end of the line, which goes all the way to St Ives. I urge the Minister to look again at rail electrification, and to ask his colleagues, particularly the Rail Minister, to look with urgency at this matter. In the Great Western region, there has been a complete failure in the Government’s commitment to electrification. On lines into Wales, the electrification stops at Cardiff, and the whole of south Wales continues to be served by dirty diesel vehicles.

However, similarly to road issues, rail issues go way beyond the technical nature of the vehicles involved. There are also wider questions about the priority given to rail travel over road travel and the strategic choices made by the Government. I urge the Government to look at the work of the German Government, which was mentioned by a colleague earlier. The German Government recently instituted a 10% cut in rail fares across Germany which, as mentioned, is in many ways a comparable northern European country. Labour proposed a 30% cut in rail fares. Cutting fares is likely to have a significant impact on rail use and in taking people out of polluting road vehicles and on to rail, which even with diesel locomotives will reduce carbon emissions significantly. With electrification, it has enormous potential benefits.

However, there is also an issue about ownership. I welcome the Government’s recent renationalisation —as my colleague said, we wish them a happy rail renationalisation day—but would like to see them go further and look at the whole network, and to introduce a clear strategy for managing and developing that network and avoiding the current poor performance of the franchise system and the failure of the complicated ticketing system.

It is a little-known fact that buses are actually the major form of public transport in the UK. I urge the Minister to completely rethink the Government’s failed policy on buses, which is in many ways one of their worst areas of transport performance. Funding for buses has been cut by 45%. James Daly talked about his own issues on the outskirts of Greater Manchester, which I will come to shortly, but for many colleagues in rural areas, there has been a notable impact on services. Near to my own seat in Reading, Oxfordshire County Council rather foolishly cut all bus subsidies, affecting the population of more than half a million people. There is clearly a need for a complete rethink. Hundreds of routes have been lost.

However, as with rail, there is also a need to strategically rethink the strategy for the whole system. Since the Transport Act 1985, bus patronage has declined and there has been an over-emphasis on a small number of highly profitable routes, because of the nature of the system. We need to look again at the possibility of greater franchising. The hon. Member for Bury North makes a good point about the issue of communities on the edge of networks. However, franchising was retained in London and has been shown to lead to much higher bus patronage.

We also, as a country, need to address the success of municipal bus companies. In Reading, the bus company is outstanding and has growing patronage, and the same is true of Nottingham, where my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood represents a seat. Municipal firms have a great deal to offer. Municipal transport is widely known on the continent and is associated with many centre-right Governments, so I urge Ministers to reconsider the previous—somewhat ideological—opposition to this common-sense, practical and effective form of local accountability.

In summary on buses, I call on the Minister to look at the overall level of subsidy and to address capital investment in the sector, with a view to encouraging more electric buses, and also to look at the management of bus services, to make them more effective and more responsive to local needs. This was so wisely pointed out in the case of Greater Manchester, where I believe that the Mayor is looking at franchising with a view to improving services in the very outer boroughs, which the hon. Member for Bury North mentioned.