Leamside Line — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:24 am on 8th February 2022.

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[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 2:30 pm, 8th February 2022

Before we begin, I would like to remind Members that Mr Speaker encourages us all to observe social distancing and to wear face-masks.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the potential merits of reopening the Leamside Line.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all Members in attendance. I can say that there are colleagues here today just as passionate as I am on this subject, and I look forward to hearing their contributions. It is important to emphasise from the outset the unity on this issue in the north-east from those on all sides of the political spectrum, and from the business community, the transport sector, local authorities and the general public.

I would like to outline the vision for the Leamside Line. It has three key purposes. The first is local: it would allow for an expansion of the Tyne and Wear Metro through the South of Tyne and Wearside loop, which would connect Washington’s 70,000 residents to the system. The second is regional: it would open up passenger rail services for the whole Leamside corridor and its population of 124,000 people, from Ferryhill to Pelaw. It connects that population, and the 1 million people with indirect access to the line, to Tyneside, Wearside, Durham and Teesside. It would revolutionise transport across the region. The final is national: it would support east coast main line capacity for passenger and vital freight services, as well as national rail connectivity. Those three aspects form the overall strategic ambitions for the reopening of the line.

I am incredibly happy to have secured this very timely debate, following a huge event on Friday 4 February 2022, in which I visited three strategic points along the line to visualise where it will one day run, along with colleagues who are present today, local authority leaders, and representatives from: Transport North East, led by Tobyn Hughes; the Northern Powerhouse Partnership; the North East local enterprise partnership; and the North East England chamber of commerce.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this really important debate. I was pleased to join my hon. Friend and Paul Howell at Follingsby in Gateshead to show the unity on proceeding with this line, which makes excellent sense for all kinds of reasons.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for joining us, although it was freezing. We were in the constituency of my hon. Friend Kate Osborne, who was unable to join us but did have representatives present.

The next location we visited was in my patch, in Washington. It was in the shadow of Penshaw monument, near the magnificent Victoria viaduct, which stretches over what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of Wearside. The viaduct was built in 1838, and it shows the scale of the engineering skill, the genius, the hard work and, through its beauty, the hedonism that characterised the region at that time, which was the powerhouse of global Great Britain. It is a shame to see such a feat of engineering go unused. It is incredible, however, to learn that with minimal reinforcements, the viaduct will be ready to take rail services, some 200 years after it was built.

The last time a train crossed that bridge was in 1992, when the line was mothballed after serving for around 30 years as a diversionary route for the east coast main line. It even took the Queen’s train across the Wear. However, it had been in infrequent use since 1963, when the infamous Beeching cuts were made, and Washington station has not been used since.

Washington was a very different place at that time. It was populated mostly by families who were dependent for work on the many pits that dot the area, or the chemical works. In 1963, when the rail link was taken away, a Government White Paper proposed that Washington be developed as a mark II new town, in order to stimulate faster progress and raise the scale and quality of the region’s urban development.

Washington was developed as a series of villages near-equidistant from Sunderland, Newcastle and Durham, and new industries, especially the automotive industry, thrived there. Hon. Members will be aware that Nissan is in my constituency. We should be careful not to romanticise or become overly nostalgic about how life was then, but there was a determined national policy and vision for the development of the town, and properly funded public services made the town prosperous. Graeme Bell, who worked on the town development corporation in the 1960s, wrote in 2019:

“Our brief for Washington New Town was to create ‘a town in which people want to live’. So simple, so complex. We started with the consultant’s masterplan which envisaged a place where the car was king. … a grid of dual carriageways with grade-separated junctions was to criss-cross the countryside to enable the 50,000 planned population to travel between home, work and play. This was to be Los Angeles-on-the-Wear!

A fore-runner of the design for Milton Keynes, the idea was that by taking the traffic out of the built-up areas, car-free spaces could be created where families and particularly children could safely walk to school, play and socialise. Within the grid were also to be factories and offices – jobs that were crucial to the success of Washington – and shops and parks, so residents wouldn’t need to travel great distances to live a good life.”

Those who live in Washington, or live and work around Washington, can see that vision of how it was intended to be. The latter part of the vision, however, was dismantled as industries such as the pits and the chemical works were decimated, and policies led to the loss of the good public services that fulfil the needs of modern life. The story of how we moved into that situation is one that we all know well.

Washington is now home to a number of areas identified as left-behind neighbourhoods, where social infrastructure is lacking. Residents have markedly worse socioeconomic outcomes than the residents of other equally deprived areas. The all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods notes that “steady bus service decline” and low car ownership,

“combined with rail closures have led to these places being disconnected and cut off from essential services and amenities”.

This Chamber recently heard about the major cuts to Tyne and Wear bus services in a debate led by my hon. Friend Liz Twist. Those cuts now seem inevitable as covid-19 funding unwinds. With our local authorities being told to bear the brunt of keeping our public services afloat, I worry that residents dependent on those services risk being stranded. Meanwhile, 40% of households in left-behind neighbourhoods have no car; in England, the average is 26%.

Those circumstances make things even harder for residents of Washington, which, as I mentioned, was built at the dawn of the automotive age. The design of the town, combined with the current insufficient provision, means that the demands of modern society are not being met. Residents are being left behind; like populations in other towns across the country, they have to get out to get on. Great jobs, especially in the car industry, are on the doorstep, but they are highly competitive, and not all of them are accessible to those who live closest to them. Young people often find themselves having to move to neighbouring cities for good jobs, and that creates a de facto brain drain. For those who do not make it out, do not drive and cannot make the 40-minute bus journey into an education centre, opportunity is therefore stifled.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this really important debate. She expresses very eloquently the real problem for people in our area: if they do not have a car, their chances of getting the employment that they really want are cut massively. By not providing public transport and not agreeing to Labour’s plans, this Government are strangling opportunity for people in the north-east.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments; she is right.

Leamside is the solution to these transport and connectivity problems. I welcome the sentiment behind the Government’s “Levelling Up” White Paper, published last week; it aims to level up the left behind, but the sentiment simply did not translate into tangible, real-world differences on the scale needed to level up the places that colleagues here and I represent. Connectivity matters. It is all about access. For the communities up and down this stretch of line, it is about access to education, jobs, business and leisure. It aids and expands access to economic benefits, health options, educational assets and cultural capital.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate. I am the Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central—not only the place, but the mainline train station of the same name. Does she agree that the Leamside line would give people from across the region access to Newcastle institutions, such as Newcastle College and Newcastle University, and that it would also give those institutions access to the wider region? The interconnectivity of which she talks is so important economically, and in creating a critical mass of energy, innovation and skills that will allow our economy to thrive.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: the connectivity works both ways. This is not just about people being able to get out of Washington; it is about people across the region being able to come into Washington and see everything that Washington, Sunderland, South Tyneside, Durham, Gateshead and the whole region has to offer. This connectivity will mean that people from further afield can come to those places and access the cultural capital that we have to offer, as well as leisure and employment opportunities.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. Does she agree that the Leamside line is important as a core piece of transport, but needs to be part of a joined-up picture? There are fantastic job opportunities on the line, but there need to be buses to connect them, and there needs to be a holistic solution.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

I agree. That is why this debate links so well with the debate on buses that we had here a few weeks ago. We need the extra connectivity. The scheme is all very well for people who live near the Leamside line, but lots of people do not. They will need the whole passenger transport network to connect and link up.

As my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah said, the reopening of the line would benefit the whole region; that is indicated by the presence here of non-Leamside line MPs. The line would give young apprentices who cannot afford a car access to Nissan and the International Advanced Manufacturing Park; it would enable workers to get to the two massive Amazon sites along the line; and it would give access to Doxford International Business Park and Integra 61 in Durham. All these employment centres provide over 25,000 jobs, and are growing.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

As the hon. Lady will know, my constituency has received massive investment—Treasury jobs, the Darlington Economic Campus and a whole host of other civil service jobs. Does she agree that reopening the Leamside line would open up those job opportunities to her constituents, who could travel to Darlington?

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

I agree. People should be able to reach the jobs easily, wherever they are—and not just those who can afford a car. Often the car comes after the job; people need to be able to get to the job first.

Leamside is not only a solution to a problem, but an opportunity for the whole north-east. Every journey on the Metro by a commuter, shopper or tourist adds an average of £8.50 to the economy. Think of the boost that Leamside would give to the South Tyneside and Wearside Metro loop, even without the wider Leamside line. There are three benefits to this line, and the Metro is just one. This is a win, win, win, as I constantly say. It would mean that people lived and spent money in these local communities. It would change the socioeconomic future of the whole north-east. As Henri Murison said, it is vital for the whole northern powerhouse.

Levelling up the left-behind takes money, but it is question of priorities. Where our high streets are struggling, it is because the local economy is struggling unaided. Where our communities are declining, it is because the services that bind them together are being allowed to fall into disrepair. Where chances for generations of young people are being slashed, it is because the barriers to opportunities are allowed to continue to exist. These are political choices, but they can be addressed and reversed, just as the mothballing of the Leamside line can be reversed.

Before 1992, the line was used for freight purposes, which helped the east coast main line. The Minister will know that the Leamside line has the potential to extend capacity by some 50% on a vital, but highly congested, stretch of the east coast main line—the artery that links the north to Scotland.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. Does she agree that the Leamside line has the potential to provide resilience to the east coast main line? For a long stretch, there are just two tracks, and if anything goes wrong there, the connection between England and Scotland is effectively stopped.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

I absolutely agree. As someone who has travelled up and down that line for almost 17 years, I know that when something goes wrong on that stretch and trains are stuck higher up the line, the trains cannot get to Newcastle. The whole thing then falls apart, as all of us who travel down that line know.

There is a comprehensive need for the Leamside line to be reopened—for national, regional and local purposes. Again, I stress the north-east unity—the Minister will hear that unity today—and the joint voice calling for the Leamside line to be reopened. When I took my seat in 2005, I quickly got to grips with this campaign, its importance, and the word “conurbation”. Washington is one of the largest conurbations in the UK without a rail or rapid transit link—I constantly mention that small fact.

I have presented five petitions to the House over 17 years, sent countless letters to the Department for Transport and the Minister’s predecessors, submitted evidence following a call for evidence on light rail, and recently co-sponsored three bids to the restoring your railway fund with Paul Howell, so it is fair to say that this means a lot to me. I am very proud of the cross-party nature of this campaign, both at local authority level and here in this House.

Where are we now? Leamside has featured as a significant element of previous local and current regional transport plans, including the 2021 North East transport plan and Transport for the North’s statutory advice. While the disappointing integrated rail plan in effect ruled out Government investment in the Leamside line for east coast main line purposes, the case remains strong.

I appreciate that the integrated rail plan indicated that the reinstatement of the Leamside line could be part of a devolution deal, but I believe it absolutely should be part of any forthcoming devolution deal. The hon. Member for Sedgefield and I discussed this with the Minister when we met earlier. However, until that deal is on the table, I do not want to see those promises used to kick the can down the road. I want Government co-operation in making the Leamside line a reality in the meantime. That means listening, as working with others, and, ultimately, financially helping with the steps needed to get there.

The north east joint transport committee has taken on the Government’s feedback, and is developing the umbrella strategic business case in phases. It has secured £100,000 in funding and is commissioning a strategic outline business case for the Metro loop element of the line.

We are taking matters into our own hands; the north-east is taking steps to achieve its ambitions, but it can only take itself so far, because our local authorities continue to be starved of cash. A project as significant and game-changing as the Leamside line will eventually need to be funded by central Government. Let us not beat about the bush: this is a very expensive piece of infrastructure, but it is needed and very much wanted.

I hope this debate shows the weight behind the will for the reinstatement of the Leamside line. I hope that, ultimately, the Government will listen to the north-east and match their rhetoric on levelling up with their commitment. The north-east is making inroads on reaching its ambitions. We hope that the Government will work with us to realise the potential of the Leamside corridor communities, secure a better future for the north-east, and future-proof national infrastructure by supporting the reopening of the Leamside line as soon as possible.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The debate will continue until 4 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 3.37 pm, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister, and then Sharon Hodgson will have three minutes at the end of the debate to sum up the proceedings. In the meantime, I hope to get everybody in. We have just over 45 minutes, so if Members could moderate their speeches, everybody will be able to contribute. We will have an excellent example to start us off with from Peter Gibson.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 2:50 pm, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. The debate raises a hugely important issue for the connectivity of communities across the north-east, and I am pleased to see so much cross-party unity from the north-east. I congratulate Mrs Hodgson on securing the debate, and commend her on her efforts campaigning for the Leamside line.

I am proud to have been elected on a manifesto that promised to level up all regions of the UK, realising and releasing the full potential of places such as Darlington. Levelling up is already bringing huge benefits to the north-east, but levelling up must be for everyone, as the hon. Lady said. If we are to ensure that local people can access those new opportunities and that investment can continue to reach communities such as mine, we must ensure that we improve transport infrastructure across all modes of transport, but especially through improvements to rail. In Darlington alone, we are seeing progress with £105 million invested in Bank Top station, but we must not stop there. The reopening of the Leamside line has huge potential benefits to further boost connectivity across the whole region and bring even more investment to our area.

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of what is, to some, one of the most infamous episodes in this country’s railway history: the Beeching cuts. The north-east has not escaped the legacy of those cuts, which led to further decimation of our railway lines, and we are still feeling the impact on our railways and the connectivity of our region. I am proud that this Conservative Government are seeking to reverse that wrong, and I want the Leamside line to play a role in restoring our railway links to their former glory.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

I want to emphasise the importance of the points that my hon. Friend is making. The Darlington station changes are vital to another project, the Weardale line, which he and I support as well; they will also play into what we are looking at for the wider north-east, which is an expansion of capacity across the region, particularly with Leamside for freight capacity. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about seeing the entire thing as one package, with Darlington playing a vital role in that?

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention: he has raised some of the points that I was going to mention. The connectivity of our region is pivotal to Darlington, given our important connection to the railway, and he is absolutely right that the debate about how we move forward has to be a whole-region debate.

The 21-mile stretch of the Leamside line, from Gateshead through South Tyneside to Sunderland and County Durham, would open up potential to create new jobs and housing, as well as environmental benefits through taking hundreds of cars off some of the region’s main commuter roles, easing congestion and improving air quality. The Leamside line will help deliver public transport that is fit for purpose, getting people to where employment opportunities are and opening up communities that are currently disconnected to new investment opportunities. The area of County Durham that would be served by the Leamside line has the lowest car ownership per person, meaning that there is public reliance on public transport. It is not right that those people should become further disadvantaged because of matters outside their control. The reopening of the Leamside line could play a part in levelling that playing field and open up opportunities to communities in the rest of the north-east.

In November, I warmly welcomed the Government’s £96 billion integrated rail plan for the north, which will deliver better transport links and spread prosperity and opportunity decades sooner than planned. Reopening the Leamside line would undoubtedly complement that wider package of improvements to rail in the north and midlands. It would take our planned improvements to the east coast main line further by helping to speed up journey times, linking the north-east to the rest of the UK rail network and delivering much-needed east coast extra capacity.

While we have the Minister here, I want to say that we should not just restore the Leamside line. I would also warmly welcome the restoration of the Darlington to Weardale line. Reopening that line would have huge potential to improve local connections and boost business, employment, education and leisure opportunities for my constituents. I am pleased to see that receiving real consideration and look forward to the Government’s feasibility study into the scheme.

I note that we are once again debating reopening a railway line that will better connect areas of the north-east to Darlington. Indeed, I might go as far as to say that it seems that all rails lead to Darlington. It would be remiss of me not to point that out, as it is further evidence that Darlington is the true home of the railways and a clear choice for the home of Great British Railways.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 2:56 pm, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson for securing this important debate. I do not propose to go over all the reasons why it is so important to reopen the Leamside line—she has eloquently covered that—but we need a degree of realism and honesty about why we are in the current situation.

The reopening of the Leamside line has cross-party support, cross-business support and cross-community support. The North East Combined Authority, representing local authorities south of the Tyne, and the North of Tyne Combined Authority support it, along with Transport North East. I congratulate Transport North East on its 2021 to 2030 transport plan, which sets out a comprehensive and ambitious plan for the region’s transport. It talks not just about rail, but about other modes of transport as well, which will not only lead to economic benefits for the north-east but improve the air quality in the environment in which we live. The only people who do not support the plan are the Government, who left it out of their integrated rail plan, announced towards the end of last year. In doing so they said that the project could be part of a city region deal that they hoped to negotiate sometime in the future. I suggest that that is part of the Government’s wider agenda on devolution—it is jam tomorrow so long as regions agree to tinker around with their governance structures.

In the levelling-up White Paper, which I read over the weekend, there was a very good history lesson on the origins of the Venetian city state. One of its main themes was leadership, but I would argue that we have leadership in the north-east in the ambitious plan being put forward by Transport North East and the united support of the political leadership across parties and businesses. The only thing missing in support of that plan is the Government. Instead, we have the vague ideas that were talked about in the levelling-up White Paper last week of devolving powers without resources, or resources being devolved but having to be bid for from central Government. That is not proper devolution; it is a different control mechanism from Whitehall.

Instead, there is the inefficient and expensive Beeching reversal fund. From the two examples that have been awarded so far in County Durham, its only main benefits seem to be to provide expensive press releases for local Conservative Members of Parliament or to fund rail consultants. People’s expectations are raised, and we know from some of the examples that they will never be met—it is not achievable.

Let me give the finest example of that, and I am glad that my neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr Holden is here to hear it. It is the proposal to extend the Tyne and Wear metro system to Consett. The feasibility study has so far cost £50,000. The price tag for delivery given in that study is £640 million, and it will rip through either my constituency or that of my hon. Friend Liz Twist. That price tag is more than the entire £500 million that has been allocated to the Beeching reversal fund. If that were not bad enough, the Lib Dem-Tory council in County Durham is committed to push the project on to the next phase, spending more money and employing more consultants, knowing that it will never be achieved.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

Does the right hon. Member agree that that is plain to see the support of the Labour-led Gateshead Council for the project between Consett and the Tyne, as well?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

They have clearly not read the report. If the hon. Gentleman tells me that any Government are going to provide him with £640 million of public money for a railway to Consett, he is deluding himself. That is not going to happen. The point is to be honest with people. I know that he came out with that flippantly when he did not think he would get elected as the Member for North West Durham, but he did and, therefore, he feels he has to follow through. It is not going to be achievable.

I object to the fact that the public are being deluded, and that more public money has frankly been wasted on highly paid consultants. The hon. Member for North West Durham referred earlier to the Weardale line, which is another example of similar amounts of money being suggested. That line will not be achievable, because the amount of money being argued for will not be forthcoming. Why not just be honest with people?

The strategy is clear: throw around all these projects to give the impression that something is happening when it is not. We have a real example with the Leamside line where, if the Government concentrated on putting in the money, it would create benefits. Peter Gibson is right that it would improve his constituency and those on the east coast main line, due to capacity. However, I wish he would not argue about the new timetable for the north-east coast line, which would mean that an hourly service would be introduced from Chester-le-Street. The hon. Member and the Tees Valley Mayor complained that that would reduce the number of trains to Darlington. I am sorry; we need an hourly service and that needs to be addressed. It would be addressed if we got the project.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

My job as the Member of Parliament for Darlington is to stand up for the services that reach my constituency, just as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would fight if the services in his constituency were reduced. I have no hesitation in continuing that fight for the services in my constituency.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I have no criticism of that, but he speaks up and gets the entire thing shelved for six months. That means that my constituents do not get the hourly service from Chester-le-Street that they were promised. That shows how logic has gone out of the window in arguing for the overall benefits on the east coast mainline, not just for one particular town that happens to have a Conservative Member of Parliament.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way again?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. This is a debate about the Leamside line. Four other Members seek to contribute to the debate. I am sure Mr Jones is almost finished and will conclude his remarks with reference to the line we are debating today.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I will, but these issues are important, Mr Hollobone. Since 2010, the north-east has had the second smallest increase in transport funding, at £17 per head. The Institute for Public Policy Research report of 2019 showed that transport spending in London was seven times higher than that in the north-east of England. We need a degree of honesty from the Government. Why do they not trust the elected representatives of the north-east to set priorities, and why not be clear why they are not reopening the Leamside line? That is a clear political decision.

If we are to believe the rhetoric on devolution, it should be about listening to the united voice of the political and community leadership in the north-east and agreeing the funding for the Leamside line. The Government can come up with as much smoke and mirrors as they like to argue why they are not funding it. The ultimate reason lies in the Government’s political will to do it.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 3:04 pm, 8th February 2022

It is an obvious pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I repeat my congratulations to Mrs Hodgson on securing the debate. Members tend to focus on their own areas, as we have seen in the last stretch of the debate. My speech will therefore start at the bottom of the Leamside line, which goes from the Newcastle area to Ferryhill in my patch, its most southerly aspect.

Opening the Leamside line in full is an important part of demonstrating to the population that the Government are serious about levelling up, especially in the north-east. Since right hon. and hon. Members from across the parties will cover their various constituencies, I will focus on mine. Reopening the Leamside line is an integral part of delivering on the levelling-up agenda. It has been a key long-term aspiration for the north-east and boasts cross-party support from MPs, councillors, businesses and partnerships. As mentioned earlier, it just needs the last piece of the puzzle: backing from Government.

On the surface, levelling up is about providing investment in infrastructure to areas that have been chronically underfunded, which I will cover shortly. However, as discussed in the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods—I am co-chair, and the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West is an officer, as are other Members—it is about creating pride and trust in our local heritage and the places where we live. The north-east in particular can boast of its historical importance to the industrial revolution as the home of the steam train and a huge provider of the coal this country ran on. The Leamside line is of such historical importance to the local area that reinstating it would not only provide transport and opportunities but would bring back to life such an important part of local history and pride. Passengers would be able to travel on a line that was once the true artery of the area and carried the very coal and minerals that made the area so successful in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The first section of the line opened as early as August 1838 between Washington and Rainton Meadows. By the 1840s, it was providing passenger services to Darlington and Gateshead. It was then included in the original east coast main line from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh and carried both passenger and freight services. The line’s main source of revenue, as with most of the early railways, was mineral traffic, principally from the Durham coalfield. The line was linked to many private colliery branch lines and wagon ways.

When the present east coast main line began to take a quicker route through Team Valley and Low Fell, the Leamside line—or the old main line—continued to be used for passengers and freight. It served open mines nearby, and the area swelled with smaller lines and sidings to accommodate the amount of mineral being moved. By the 1920s, Ferryhill station, in particular, was said to be one of the busiest goods yards in Europe. During the second world war, its tucked-away location hid it from the luftwaffe and made it a safe space for storing the coal so desperately needed by wartime Britain. It was used as a diversionary route when the new main line was blocked—we still have that opportunity now—to ensure that the important direct line from Scotland to London was always clear.

Unfortunately, from the 1940s, parts of the Leamside line began to close. First, passenger services at Ferryhill and Leamside were withdrawn, and then stations began to close in earnest. While Ferryhill continued to carry coal and other freight into the 1980s, its usage had greatly declined by that time due to the gradual demise of the Durham coalfields. The Leamside line was mothballed entirely in the early 1990s and reduced to a single line. However, even though it was closed, hope was always present that the Leamside line would reopen. The land is safeguarded from development, with no sales of land attached to the line.

Proposals to reopen the line were put forward in the early 1990s. It is an important cultural landmark for the area, recognised by local communities, local leaders and partnerships alike. Its reinstatement would bring pride of place, an appreciation for the north-east’s heritage and a feeling of being heard in the north-east for those who currently feel cut off from investment and Government attention.

The second reason why the Leamside line needs to be reinstated is the most easily quantifiable reasons of local growth, increased employment and increased private investment. This is the version of levelling up more commonly discussed, and it is sorely needed in the communities along the Leamside line. The former coalfields in the south-east of County Durham are characterised by above-average levels of deprivation, with as much as one third of the population living in areas in the 20% most deprived nationally. Ferryhill lies within the top 10% to 20% of the most deprived areas, according to the 2019 index of multiple deprivation, and the north-east has a lower life expectancy than any other region in England, with Ferryhill lower than that average still.

The North East local enterprise partnership strategic economic plan identified that the local economy has the potential to grow significantly further and into different sectors over the coming years. However, that growth will not happen on its own. It will rely on better local transport connectivity provided by an improved and expanded network, enhancing access to labour markets, education and skills. Unless this is tackled head-on, the region risks falling further behind other areas of the country as local economic inequalities continue to grow, and the regional productivity gulf could widen as the benefits of investment elsewhere, such as in HS2, take effect.

Currently, the growth of the local area is heavily constrained by the east coast main line. It is the sole rail artery linking the north-east with the rest of the country, yet between Northallerton and Newcastle there is only one track per direction, so it is very much a bottleneck for traffic and growth in the area. The route is already at capacity. No extra passenger or freight services can pass through the area unless the infrastructure is upgraded, and alternative relief routes become necessary.

If we focus on the Ferryhill area of the line served by the Leamside, in my constituency the current situation is pretty dire. Nearly 35% of the population have no cars or vans, and they rely on infrequent and slow buses. These people find leaving the local area and expanding their opportunities very difficult. Individuals cannot access jobs, children cannot access schools, and businesses cannot access labour and resources. The lack of suitable rail transport is suppressing the opportunities of the people along the Leamside line’s mothballed track. That could change with Government approval for the line.

By diverting freight from the east coast main line and utilising the full extent of the Leamside and Stillington routes, capacity could be lifted by up to 50%. That would mean more resources moving into the area from the rest of the country and more passenger services so that people can travel. The line would also open up travel within the locality. People could see their friends, take their children to sports clubs further afield or do a bit of city centre shopping. Those things are taken for granted in other parts of the country.

Luckily, our separate but related bid for Ferryhill station to be rebuilt got initial bid approval, and we are awaiting on the outcome of stage 2, the strategic business plan; we are particularly optimistic about the outcome. I hope the Minister will indicate when the separate bid might be cleared. Does she agree that, although it would be discrete, a successful Ferryhill reopening would be a natural fire-starter signal for the reopening of the Leamside line?

Ferryhill’s reopening enjoyed great enthusiasm from the Minister’s predecessor, and I hope she will come to share that enthusiasm. Ferryhill’s reopening should be made the most of. Ferryhill is an intrinsic link between Teesside and Leamside in the north. It would be brilliant for both ends if the shovel in the ground at Ferryhill signalled something larger and really transformative.

In summary, will the Minister advise us when approval will be given to proceed with the Ferryhill case, which would link the base of the Leamside to Teesside? Can she provide us with clear direction as to what specific actions are required to progress the IRP’s recommendation that the Leamside would be

“best considered as part of a future city region settlement”?

Whether it is for passengers or freight, capacity or resilience, hope or opportunities, or even just the need to provide low carbon transport options, there is a clear and obvious economic and cultural need for Ferryhill station to be the fulcrum between Teesside on the Stillington line and Tyneside and Wearside through the Leamside line. We need the Government to recognise that as a critical part of levelling up. Let us build back our north-east transport infrastructure to make its future as impressive as its past.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham 3:13 pm, 8th February 2022

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson for securing this debate. She is a tireless campaigner for the Leamside line, and the entire region is grateful for her work.

In Durham we hear a lot from the Government about levelling up. The term has been used so interchangeably by members of the Cabinet in reference to every scrap of funding or half-baked policy that is thrown our way in the north-east that it has pretty much lost all meaning. In Durham, it is spoken about with increasing irony and frustration, with the words “So much for levelling up” becoming more and more common every time the Government over-promise and under-deliver.

Levelling up should be about more than delivering one-off funding or a few insecure jobs. It should be about transforming the infrastructure of our left-behind regions and improving our schools, homes, roads, railways, economies and so much more, so that the communities we live in—those we are proud to call home—can deliver to a person in the north-east the same quality of living and the same life chances as someone in a more affluent region has. Investment in our transport systems, including our railways, is integral to that.

Transport infrastructure has been underfunded in the north. That is not my opinion; it is fact. In 2019-20, transport spending was more than £560 higher per head in London than in the north-east, while transport investment was almost £380 higher per head in London. The levelling-up agenda was meant to right those wrongs and make up for the years of deprivation and underfunding. That is why I and many of my colleagues in the region are frustrated beyond belief at the Government’s continued refusal to invest in the north-east’s transport infrastructure by reopening the Leamside line.

There are few issues that I and my neighbour, Paul Howell agree on, but on the reopening of the Leamside line we are in complete agreement about its benefits for County Durham and the wider region. In fact, the campaign is supported by virtually every politician in the north-east, regardless of their political party, as well as by our region’s major employers and business groups. That is because the economic and social benefits of reopening the line are clear.

Reopening the line would create more capacity for rail freight, taking polluting lorries off the road. In turn, that could allow more longer-distance passenger services to operate from Durham station on the east coast main line. It would drastically improve connectivity across the region, with the potential to bring rail services to Bowburn, Belmont park and ride and West Rainton in my constituency, creating new public transport links with major employment centres such as Nissan and transforming the economic opportunities for people in County Durham. Reopening the line could also be an integral step in attracting thousands of jobs to County Durham. I have heard at first hand from stakeholders in Bowburn of the benefits of the Leamside line for the Integra 61 site and the surrounding villages, and I am happy to rasie their support today.

Although the Government agree that the plans have

“good potential in terms of transport and socioeconomic benefits”,

they believe that

“the overall cost of the reinstatement remains prohibitive”.

Even though the entire project would cost just £600 million and bring new levels of connectivity to the north-east, it is deemed to be too expensive by those in Government. Do Ministers understand how insulting that is to our region when HS2 is projected to cost at least £80 billion? In the north-east, we are all too often treated as second-class citizens and as less deserving of investment.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. If the hon. Lady is generously giving way, she needs to resume her seat. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am keen to have a debate across the Chamber, of course, but there are still two hon. Members who have yet to contribute, and he has already done so. Hon. Members need to be mindful of that.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Can she outline to the House why the last Labour Government did not deem it necessary to reopen the Leamside line?

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. [Interruption.] Yes, there were probably a number of reasons, to do with the preceding Government and some of the rules that were in place. All I can say is that my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West has been fighting for years and years.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

We were unpeeling the mess of rail privatisation and the underinvestment in the system, which led to things such as Potters Bar. We did get major investments, including the improved electrification of the north-east main line.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. In the north-east, we are too often treated as second-class citizens and as less deserving of investment. Yes, the plans would cost money, but the best things do. I believe that Durham deserves the best and our county is worth investing in. I only wish the Government thought the same. Sadly, Ministers seem to find it easier to let the north-east down than to level it up.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham 3:19 pm, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to Mrs Hodgson for bringing this debate to the House today.

Like other Members, I was very proud to be elected on a manifesto of levelling up. Mr Jones was right to say that my election in 2019 was a slight surprise, but if he had spent more time on the ground rather than grandstanding down here in Westminster, he probably would not have been as surprised. He would have understood the issues affecting local people in my constituency, and he would not have seen such a massive decrease in his share of the vote at the last election.

I am very supportive of the Leamside line, which is vital to the levelling-up agenda for the north of England. Alongside education and employment opportunities, transport and transport infrastructure are really important parts of the agenda. I am here to support the Leamside line because it is vital for the whole north-east, particularly because it would help to improve capacity on the east coast main line. It may also play into one of the schemes in my constituency, the Weardale line, which was supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson). We are looking into extracting minerals from Weardale—lithium exploration is currently under way—and the Leamside line could enable direct rail transit and avoid the need for freight to trundle through the constituency of the right hon. Member for North Durham via road. Instead, it could go via rail, bypassing all the issues. There is a broader strategic aspect to the line, particularly with the gigafactories opening around Nissan, which I was happy to visit not long ago with the Prime Minister.

The Leamside line is important for access to the local area as well, as hon. Members have said. It is about capacity, but it is also about enabling people in our communities to move readily between them and to access employment and education opportunities that are not there at the moment. As Chi Onwurah and others have said, enabling greater freight service use would also help with the reliability and greater frequency of services—perhaps even the services to Chester-le-Street that the right hon. Member for North Durham mentioned.

The Leamside line has to be part of a wider transport plan. That plan cannot just be about rail; it has to be about road as well. That is why I am delighted to support the A68 changes that have been proposed in a levelling-up fund bid by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland. I hope that, down the line, we will also be able to support the A693 upgrades for the right hon. Member for North Durham.

I will address a couple of broader issues that were raised about levelling up the country. It is vital that we look at all sorts of schemes. If some hon. Members had spent the two decades since they were elected actually campaigning for reconnections to places such as Stanley, Annfield Plain and Consett, we might be a lot further advanced in these plans than we are today.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The hon. Member knows as well as I do that the main answer for a lot of communities in his constituency and mine is the bus network. The fact is that because of the Conservative Government, who have been in power since 2010, Durham County Council has lost £224 million in central Government allocation, and that has led to bus services and subsidies being withdrawn. I am sorry, but I will not take any lectures off him about transport in Durham.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

If the right hon. Gentleman listened to one of his own local councillors, who represents Chester-le-Street and with whom I campaigned to get the feasibility study going—the former Labour leader of Durham County Council—and if he listened and worked with people like me, rather than listening to people who want to live in the past as he does, he would be on side now.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

The right hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position, which he should not do. He could stand up and try to make another intervention if he wished. It is true that these schemes would be expensive, but if he had been campaigning for them for a longer period of time, rather than carping from the sidelines, as he is doing—

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

No, I will not give way again; the right hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time to have his own say during the debate. If he had campaigned for these measures for a longer period of time, perhaps we would be further advanced. Of course it is about buses. I am fully supportive—

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. I have not heard the words “Leamside line” mentioned for about five minutes. Can we get back on to the subject of the debate? There is still one other Member seeking to contribute.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone.

Let us come back to the matter in hand. I have one proposal under way, working with Labour-controlled Gateshead Council and the coalition at Durham County Council. The transport lead for the north-east is the leader of Gateshead Council; the right hon. Member for North Durham praised him earlier but later said that he had not read the report. The key thing about the Leamside line is that it will provide extra capacity through my constituency for some of those routes. It is vital because it will help broader connections across the entire county.

Hon. Members have talked about the disparity between transport spending in London and in the north. That has been the same under multiple Governments, over a long period of time. I want to see that addressed, but we cannot do that by saying, “We’ll choose this over that.” As a broad region, we need to push, on a cross-party basis, for better connectivity for our communities.

I am happy to support people from other political parties on schemes such as the Leamside line and the bus scheme across the north-east, which will feed into the Leamside line. I hope that hon. Members from other political parties will think about how we can work together on all these schemes, rather than trying to put down people who fight for something important for their communities.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 3:25 pm, 8th February 2022

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson on securing this debate and on her brilliant opening contribution.

It is sadly no surprise to me or to other Labour Members that this Conservative Government have failed to support rail infrastructure in the north-east. We have been starved of this much-needed investment for many years. The Government have talked a lot about levelling up, but, when it comes to South Tyneside and Gateshead, along with the wider north-east region, where is the real investment that is so desperately needed? The Government now have an opportunity to show real ambition in that regard.

For the past 30 years, the Leamside line from Gateshead, through South Tyneside and Sunderland, and on to Ferryhill in County Durham, has been closed. The line runs through numerous areas where new jobs and opportunities could be stimulated to assist in getting people into work, education and training, and in travelling around our region, as well as into and out of it. That could take hundreds of cars each day off some of the region’s main commuter roads, improving air quality and decarbonising transport. I hope the Government will listen to the contributions in today’s debate, and to the very valid and real arguments that all hon. Members have made for the reopening of the Leamside line.

Not just the Leamside line, but our railways as a whole—our whole transport infrastructure—need large-scale investment. As things stand, those of us in the north will yet again continue to be far worse off than those in the south. The figures speak for themselves, as my hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy and Mr Holden have highlighted. Transport spending per head in London is well over double what it is in the north of England, with £877 spent per head in London in 2019-20, compared with around £300 per head in the north-east. There is a clear demand for good public transport in the region, as we have the lowest rate of car ownership in the country outside London.

The north-east has been neglected for far too long. The Government tell us they are fully committed to our region, but 12 years on we have seen a whole host of empty promises and little to no action. The restoration of the Leamside line between County Durham and Pelaw in my constituency would facilitate a park-and-ride service to Follingsby Business Park, which currently offers employment to over 2,000 people, and allow local train services to return to places such as Washington for the first time in many years.

The reopening of the Leamside line would also relieve pressure on the east coast main line, which is already at capacity, pave the way for a major extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro and increase rail freight capacity. It is now time that the Government seized the opportunity to invest in the region’s railways. We need to see action and a clear demonstration that the Government are prepared to listen to our communities, businesses and cross-party politicians, and properly invest in our transport network.

The reopening of the Leamside line would open up parts of the north-east to direct rail connectivity and transform the region’s socio-economic future. The case for reopening the line is strong. I hope the Minister and the Government will listen today and, most importantly, take action to reopen this much-needed transport option, because, to quote my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, “connectivity matters.”

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:30 pm, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I know that for many hon. Members who have spoken today, the reopening of the Leamside line has been a long and hard-fought campaign, so I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson for bringing this issue forward for debate, which, as she mentioned, is very timely. I also congratulate her on her powerful and eloquent speech.

Last week Transport North East, alongside many hon. Members, hosted a stakeholder event to continue the push for the line’s reopening, continuing to make the case for that integral 21-mile line to run from Gateshead, through South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham, which has remained closed since 1992. Looking around today and hearing the strength of cross-party support for the line is heartening. I commend the tireless campaigning of Members from across the political spectrum. I know that many hon. Members could not attend today’s debate owing to events in the main Chamber, but the petitions, debates, parliamentary questions, local campaigning and cross-party working are exactly what our Parliament should be—working together to deliver transformational projects for our constituents.

Indeed, this project has seen widespread support not only across the areas that would have a Leamside line station, but across the north-east. Local authorities, businesses, Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of the North of Tyne, the local enterprise partnership and the North East England chamber of commerce all seem to appreciate the benefits of increasing capacity on the east coast main line by reopening Leamside.

There is increasing public support. All this is hardly surprising when we consider, as other Members have highlighted today, that every local journey taken contributes £8.50 to the north-east economy. Yet, as we have heard from multiple colleagues today, rail connectivity is about so much more than that. It is about connecting a talented student to their chosen college; reducing the emissions of a visit to friends and family; widening job opportunities for local people; and making local travel more affordable, accessible and appealing. It would help to improve Union connectivity between England and Scotland and reduce congestion and pollution on the roads.

Already the foundations have been laid. There are businesses and manufacturing parks on the line’s route already, such as Nissan’s factory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West highlighted, and new housing and regeneration projects. The project has been heavily included in the North East transport plan adopted last year and would deliver a station for Washington, which, as my hon. Friend knows all too well, is the fourth-largest town in England without a station. That needs to be corrected at the earliest opportunity and is desperately needed. If we want to grow the economies of the north-east, we must build the necessary infrastructure capacity to sustain that.

Prior to the pandemic, Network Rail noted that demand on the east coast main line would also increase significantly by 2040. As north-east authorities have continued to protect the Leamside alignment from development and it is under the ownership of Network Rail, everything is set, yet time on this project lamentably rolls on, as was highlighted by my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. Given the huge support from all quarters, why are the Government dragging their feet ? We need honesty from the Government. Given the strength of support and planning, I join hon. Members here today in their disappointment in the lack of progress.

Despite the best efforts of hon. Members and local leaders, and given the tenacious and dogged campaigning emanating from the region, I know that many expected to see the Leamside line feature in the recent integrated rail plan, yet it never came. The Minister is well versed—as are her predecessors—on my views on this shambolic document, known by many of us as the “disintegrated rail plan”. It fails the people in the north-east in particular, with the double blow of scrapping the High Speed 2 eastern leg and Northern Powerhouse Rail. As highlighted by Transport North East, it is based on short-term cost savings rather than its long-term benefits. Rather than levelling up, it is an insult to local leaders and residents, when their preferences were made abundantly clear.

For both HS2 phase 2b and an NPR network to be delivered in full, we need investment in the east coast main line corridor between Northallerton and Newcastle, including reopening the Leamside line to free up capacity, divert freight and build resilience. Even the final plans for NPR presented to the Government included the restoration of the line to achieve full and complete connectivity across the north. However, yet again their expert advice and local voices were ignored. The completion of those schemes in full would have sparked a rail revolution, but once again it is northern communities paying the price for broken Tory promises on rail. I hope that today the Minister has better news for the good people of the north-east.

More frustratingly, I know that the Government themselves recognise the benefits of the line and the need for the project to move forward. In fact, in the unsuccessful restoring your railway bid, the Transport Minister noted that it shows,

“good potential in terms of transport and socio-economic benefits”.

However, the Government have now indicated that,

“the case for re-opening the Leamside route would be best developed as part of any future city region settlement.”

Sadly, that once again kicks the can further down the road, and also seems to be somehow dependent on the North of Tyne and North East combined authorities forming one mayoral combined authority. I hope that the Minister can provide some clarity on that point.

There are already plans for Transport North East to produce studies to further prove the benefits, with the Chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee and leader of Gateshead Council Martin Gannon outlining that Leamside is one of our top priorities, with the potential to be game-changing. That would be true levelling up: investing in local transport, supported cross-party and purely driven by the benefit that the region would inevitably see.

For too long the north-east has been chronically overlooked, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy when she pointed out that the north-east has so many left-behind communities suffering from a lack of investment, including transport spending. Investing in local transport is incredibly important. I hope that the Minister realises that here, today, she can offer more than just warm words in support of the project; we can take actual steps to ensure that it can very soon be achieved, alongside the local authorities.

I also want to highlight some of the excellent speeches from across the Chamber. Peter Gibson spoke about the importance of regional connectivity linking people with jobs in different towns and cities. Paul Howell talked of levelling up, given the prevalence of areas of social deprivation. Mr Holden talked about the need to improve broader connections and connectivity across his county. My hon. Friend Kate Osborne made an excellent speech about how the Government have failed to deliver rail infrastructure investment in the north-east.

There have been lots of empty and false promises, but now is indeed the time to show ambition. The Labour party will stand up for our communities and demand that the Government deliver the northern rail investment that has been so often promised. Continuing to short-change the north for short-term savings is not going to cut it any more. I hope that the Minister will address the concerns that have been voiced today by Members from across the Chamber, so that we can move forward with what is clearly a well-supported and much-needed rail line.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:40 pm, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to be able to respond to the points that have been raised during today’s debate, Mr Hollobone. First, though, I thank Mrs Hodgson for securing today’s debate.

Improving transport connectivity in the north-east is an important topic. It is vital for the Tyne and Wear region, as we have heard, for the north of England and for the United Kingdom. I thank the hon. Lady for providing a coherent, well-reasoned argument for reopening the Leamside line between Pelaw junction and Tursdale junction, and for highlighting the potential local, regional and national benefits involved. I also thank hon. Members from around the Chamber for their invaluable contributions today, and for sharing with me a little bit more about the rich rail history of the north-east, including in their constituencies. I am reminded of my great-grandfather, who many years ago worked on the railways in County Durham—I have yet to find out exactly where, but I will find out.

I will start by reassuring the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West and all Members present that the Government are wholeheartedly committed to delivering on their vision of levelling up the British economy and building back better. Improved transport connectivity within and between our great cities is fundamental to that vision, unlocking the economic potential of the northern powerhouse, building back better from this awful pandemic, and ensuring that the Tyne and Wear region and the north of England play a key role within a resurgent UK economy. That is why my Department, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—who is also the Cabinet Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse—is at the forefront of making that vision a reality.

Since 2010, over £29 billion has been invested in transport infrastructure in the north, but we want to go further and faster. In November 2021, we published the £96 billion integrated rail plan for the north and the midlands, our biggest ever single Government investment in Britain’s rail network. The IRP is a strategy focused on bringing communities in the north and the midlands closer together, boosting inter-city connections and improving east-west links—the journeys that people are often most likely to make. The plan delivers a modern network for the whole of the country, benefiting small towns alongside our big cities far sooner than previously planned, with many improvements in this decade.

That means we are providing more seats between London and the north-east than in previous proposals, with opportunities for further increases. Previous proposals would have reduced connectivity between destinations south of York and the north-east. HS2 trains to Newcastle and York could only have been accommodated at the expense of existing services, potentially reducing or removing connections between the north-east and Doncaster, Newark and Peterborough. Now, with extra train paths from the north-east to London via the east coast main line compared with previous proposals, and with a Cross Country-type service to Newcastle likely to continue running via Doncaster, there is scope to retain improved connectivity where appropriate. Investment in the east coast main line will ease the bottlenecks that we have heard about today and provide improved segregation between passenger and freight. Journey times from London to Darlington would also be cut by 15 minutes compared with today, bringing journey times closer to the original HS2 plans, but delivered much earlier.

Importantly, the IRP included a specific reference to the Leamside line, which we are discussing today, acknowledging that the Government have carefully considered proposals to reopen that line, most recently in the form of bids for development funding through the restoring your railway ideas fund. On the basis of available evidence and value-for-money analysis, the Government consider that the case for reopening the Leamside line would be best considered as part of any future city region settlement. The north-east will be eligible to work with Government to agree a funding settlement with the city region sustainable transport settlement programme once appropriate governance arrangements are in place.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Why are the Government wedded to linking this vital investment to rejigging their arrangements for the region? The Minister has heard today that it is supported across all political parties, both here and in the region. Why are the Government wedded to that, when there is really no need to do it? They should just give Transport North East the money it needs.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

If the right hon. Gentleman will let me continue with the CRSTS point, I will come to a further point about the absence of a new devolution deal, which will perhaps help address his question.

The city region sustainable transport settlements represent a significant investment of £5.7 billion in local transport networks, predominantly in the north of England. The settlements that will be agreed by central Government are based on plans being put forward by Mayors and local leaders, and they will help to drive forward the economies of city regions, support levelling up and decarbonise transport. In the absence of a new devolution deal, or until a new deal is reached, the seven constituent local authorities in the North East Joint Transport Committee will continue to receive transport funding as currently, including highways maintenance funding, funding from the integrated transport block, and funding received in the final year of the transforming cities fund in 2022-23.

In the meantime, and in response to the IRP recommendations, I understand that Transport North East remains in regular contact with my officials on its plans to undertake a number of further Leamside line studies, including one to develop a new business case for the South Tyneside and Wearside metro loop, with a view to building towards an updated business case for a reopening that maximises the benefits to passenger and freight services across the whole region. I would strongly encourage such engagement to continue, and I hope that local stakeholders will work together to establish a pragmatic and phased strategy for taking forward this important local scheme.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I am sorry, but the Minister has not answered the question. She is talking about co-operation and working together, but the region is doing that already. She is basically saying that unless we agree to some type of devolution mechanism for the governance of the region, we will not get the money. Why link the two together? There is no need. There is unanimity and leadership among all councils and partners in the region now, so let’s just get on with it.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I think I was very clear in my response to the right hon. Gentleman, when I set out the situation with regards to the CRSTS, which was set out in the IRP, and then explained how the funding currently flows through that giant committee with the seven constituent local authorities.

I will now turn back to the Leamside line in a bit more detail, and to the restoring your railway programme. I know that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West and several other local MPs present were disappointed to hear recently that the proposal to reopen the Leamside line did not receive funding through the latest round of the Department’s restoring your railway ideas fund, and I absolutely sense the enthusiasm and passion for the project in Westminster Hall today. As part of the levelling-up agenda, the Government pledged £500 million for the restoring your railway programme in January 2020 in order to deliver our manifesto commitment and to start reopening lines and stations. That investment will reconnect smaller communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education.

Although our restoring your railway expert panel noted that the Leamside line proposal had demonstrated potential, it is important to note that the ideas fund has had a very high level of interest. Some 141 unique bids were received across the three rounds. Of those, 38 were successful and are being supported to develop a strategic outline business case, including three schemes in the north-east. I note the remarks of my hon. Friend Paul Howell on the importance of improving connectivity for residents of Ferryhill, and I can confirm that the proposal for a new station at Ferryhill, which is near the Leamside line, was awarded development funding in November 2020 as part of round 2 of the ideas fund, and that Durham County Council recently submitted its strategic outline business case. The Department will confirm next steps for the scheme in the coming months.

My hon. Friend Peter Gibson asked about the Weardale to Darlington line. The reopening of that line was also a successful idea in round 2 of the restoring your railway fund. A business case on that is currently being developed and is due in December.

Although the IRP has grabbed the headlines, we continue to work with partners on a number of rail schemes that will benefit those living and working in the north-east. In January 2021, for example, we announced £34 million to progress plans to reopen the Northumberland line to passenger services between Newcastle upon Tyne and Ashington by the end of 2023. As part of our new stations fund, Horden, just outside Durham, received £4.2 million towards the delivery of its new station. On 29 June 2020, the station opened to the public and has reconnected the towns of Horden and Peterlee, which previously had no access to the rail network.

We are also investing £1.2 billion in a programme of infrastructure enhancements for the east coast main line. Those upgrades are vital to improve the service on the railway for the tens of thousands of passengers, including hon. Members, who travel along that route. Alongside the brand-new Azuma trains, those upgrades will help to deliver journey time, reliability and capacity improvements.

Elsewhere, Network Rail has recently started on-site works on the £18 million phase 1 redevelopment of Sunderland station, including a new southern entrance and an enhanced southern concourse. The transforming cities fund is providing £95 million towards the delivery of the metro flow project to extend the Tyne and Wear Metro, with Nexus taking ownership of an existing freight line. That will improve frequency, capacity, resilience and connectivity, and will generate an additional 1.7 million passenger journeys.

We recognise the importance of the Metro to the local population of Tyne and Wear, which is why we have recently provided Nexus with a £336 million fleet replacement grant for the purchase of new rolling stock, and an additional £30 million for the construction of new depot facilities. The Metro has also benefitted from the Government’s covid-19 financial support packages, too.

Finally, I want to underscore the importance of the integrated rail plan, which was published in November 2021. It brings a whopping £96 billion of investment for the north and the midlands—the biggest ever single Government investment in Britain’s rail network. It is important that we do not lose sight of ongoing investments. I am genuinely grateful to colleagues for this very insightful debate, and for sharing with me the perspectives from their communities. I hope that my response has demonstrated to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West that my Department recognises the importance of improving rail connectivity in the north-east.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West 3:53 pm, 8th February 2022

I express my warm thanks and appreciation to all hon. Members who have taken part in this very important debate, to the excellent shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi, and to the Minister. We have heard from Government and Opposition Members from across the whole region—from Newcastle down through Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland, Durham and Darlington. As we have heard, the issue unites the whole region—all politicians, local authorities and agencies from business and transport—in one endeavour: to reopen the Leamside line for all the reasons that we have heard.

Passions can run deep on why we are at this point, but we all agree that we need to look forward with one united voice, and use that passion to achieve what we all desire: the reopening of the Leamside line to the benefit of all who would use it, across all our communities, for generations to come. We acknowledge that this would be a huge investment, but it is one that people of the north-east are long overdue. The return on that investment will be huge. We do not have that figure yet, but it is being worked on as we speak, as we discussed with the Minister earlier, and I am told that we will have it soon.

I hope that the Minister has been left in no doubt about our collective passion for this endeavour. I am sure that she will expect to find herself back here, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, for further such debates once we have further evidence and figures from our feasibility studies, and as we expand our case for the reopening of the Leamside line. I hope that this Minister—although my hon. Friend the Member for Slough may be the Minister when this happens—will be there to cut the ribbon. I very much look forward to that day.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Maybe it is a good omen for the Leamside line that we have pulled into the platform earlier than scheduled.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the potential merits of reopening the Leamside Line.

Sitting suspended.