Decarbonising Rural Transport — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 7 March 2023.

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Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 9:30, 7 March 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered decarbonising rural transport.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, which is so important to those of us who live in rural constituencies like mine.

Transport is the United Kingdom’s highest-emitting sector and is responsible for a quarter of our emissions. If we want to achieve net zero by 2050, we need to reduce emissions from our cars, vans and lorries, but we also need to recognise that rural transport is different from urban, and that reliance on cars is so much higher in rural areas. Therefore, we need to include rurality as a factor in more decisions on how we move to decarbonise our transportation.

Public transport is limited in rural Britain, and given the sparsity of population, expanding it along the lines of transport in our towns and cities is not, in general, financially viable, or even welcome—for example, sending enormous buses through tiny country lanes—but we must find ways to extend routes, provide smaller vehicles or car shares, and reintroduce train lines, especially where there has been large growth in housing, such as between Bideford and Barnstaple in my constituency of North Devon.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

East Sussex County Council has an excellent bus service improvement plan, one of whose objectives is progressively to support operators to increase the number of zero-emission buses used on the network and to upgrade diesel buses to Euro 6 standard as part of the drive to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to fulfil that objective, further Government funding opportunities will be required to introduce battery electric buses or hydrogen fuel cell buses, and for retrofitting to Euro 6 specification, and that decarbonisation of rural transport should not be restricted to local buses but should include trains? Does she further agree that the extension of HS1 from Ashford to Rye, Hastings and Bexhill, which will decarbonise and make the journey faster, is essential?

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

My hon. Friend is entirely right that all of us in rural constituencies have plans that we need our councils to deliver to facilitate the decarbonisation of our rural transport network. The challenge we face is that, unfortunately, there is not always the funding to support those fantastic rural transport schemes, although I hope the Minister will reassure us on that point. I will come to some of my own suggestions for the bus network in Devon.

Active travel is an opportunity for some, but the distances involved in rural commuting by bike mean that it is not always an option for everyone. In my constituency of North Devon, 2.4% of work journeys are made by bike, which is a surprisingly high percentage for such a rural area, but realistically, active travel is unlikely to replace huge numbers of car journeys unless it is integrated into a wider transport solution.

I will return to the opportunities to tackle the issues of public transport and active travel, but we need to be realistic: rural Britain will continue to rely on its cars for the foreseeable future.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Limited public transport options in rural communities mean that, as the hon. Lady says, many residents depend on their car for everything—getting to work, going to the doctor, seeing family and friends. Does she agree that any strategy to decarbonise rural transport needs to improve connectivity so that social isolation is not inadvertently increased?

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I agree entirely that there are so many more challenges around rural connectivity. If we are to continue to rely on our cars, we need to decarbonise them, but the roll-out of electric charging points in rural Britain lags behind that in towns, and when the distances we travel per day are so much greater, investing in an electric vehicle is a far harder decision to take.

Only 1.5% of North Devon residents have gone fully electric, compared with 2.1% nationally. I have a hybrid, as the majority of electric vehicles would not get me to Westminster each week, and I am not sure I would ever get to Exmoor in my constituency and back home as there are no charging points where I live. The nearest one is 5 miles away. To plug in at home, I would need to lay my own cable down 20 feet of path every evening, and I am not sure my schedule accommodates that.

While the Transport Minister is here, I want to highlight the appalling state of the roads in Devon. I am fully aware that we have the longest road network in the United Kingdom by 2,000 miles and that the council is working flat out to try to repair the proliferation of potholes that we have seen this winter. Not only has the weather contributed but we need to recognise that in rural Britain we have enormous farm vehicles on tiny lanes and we therefore create even more potholes, yet our council is not assigned long-term funding solutions to tackle them.

The short-term approach to funding, with inadequate rural weighting, makes the cost of repairing each pothole far higher. At this time, Devon is moving teams off scheduled roadworks as we cannot take on full-time highways teams due to the uncertainty around long-term funding. I hope that the Minister will be able to take that away and see what more can be done to address the entirely unacceptable state of our roads. If there were an Ofsted inspection of roads, I suspect we would go into special measures, yet the current funding mechanism contributes to that. The damage that potholes do to vehicles is also hugely expensive to motorists and the council, which is no doubt reimbursing a growing number of inconvenienced motorists with damaged tyres. And it deters people from switching to active travel solutions because of the potential risk of falling due to a pothole.

I spend a lot of time in this place talking about connectivity, often the communication kind, but our transport connections are vital. The lack of decarbonised public transport is impacting on decarbonising our travel.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a really important debate. When it comes to decarbonising public transport, bus use is massively important in rural communities like hers and mine. I am sure she will agree with me that the Government’s £2 cap on bus fares is a positive thing and it is positive that it has been extended to June, but even more positive would be to extend it beyond that. But it is of no use whatever if someone lives in a community where there is no bus service. When I think about places in my own community such as the Cartmel peninsula and areas in Cumbria such as the Eden valley, there is a lack of options when it comes to bus services—far too few or none at all—so it would make sense to give local authorities like the new Westmorland and Furness Council the power to start and run their own bus services to fill in the gaps and people could spend their £2 on bus services that actually exist.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I agree with the hon. Member. There is so much more that could be done. With so many of these rural transport issues, we need local solutions and for local communities to be able to share their best practice, because there are some great local bus solutions up and down the country. I have a remote district council that is detached from the county council, which is where highways sits. How do we join up those pieces? More could be done to come up with innovative solutions, which already exist in places, but are not universally available. Indeed, bus travel in my constituency is not universally available, let alone decarbonised, and that makes things as basic as getting to school both expensive and problematic.

Our bus company, which I recently met, notes that people are tending to make fewer trips than they did before the pandemic and also tending to make shorter and more local journeys as opposed to long-distance trips on a daily basis. Public transport providers have had to adapt to that, but our communities still rightfully expect the same connections to exist as they did before the pandemic, or even new connections to be developed as society has changed.

Broadly in my constituency the patronage has recovered to about 80% to 90% of pre-pandemic levels, but with concessionary journeys recovering only to around 70%. That recovery creates a challenge in rural settings where margins were stretched or non-existent before the pandemic. Funding needs to respect rurality and the higher costs of operating the routes. That could be done through paying bus service operator grants on a mile or kilometre basis as opposed to per litre of fuel to cover costs. I am assured that the industry wishes to engage with the Department on those points so that a longer-term settlement can be reached to support rural services on a longer-term basis as opposed to the current cycle of short-term funding that we are in, even though that funding is greatly appreciated.

The current Get Around for £2 is fabulous. In my constituency people can do a fantastic trip from Barnstaple to Lynton for just £2—a full 26 miles—or get to Exeter on the bus for £2. In normal times, to get from Ilfracombe, which has recently lost its last bank, to Barnstaple for the nearest branch, is two to three times more than the current £2 rate. We need to find a way to facilitate access to services for remote rural communities. In other communities, such as Woolacombe, employers provide buses for their teams to get to work, because there are no public transport options.

In the peak of the tourist season, overlaid with parking challenges and air pollution, huge queues of visitors and locals try to get to our beautiful beaches. Although the availability of public transport is my primary concern, decarbonisation of it is an entirely different matter, as rural bus journeys are significantly longer than urban ones. Capital investment in suitable vehicles is by definition going to be higher in rural Britain.

I recently spoke here about introducing a rail link from Barnstaple to Bideford. We also unsuccessfully submitted an inquiry into putting in a light rail link from Braunton to Barnstaple. Time and again, those projects do not progress; one cannot help but think that our rurality and population sparsity are factors. I hope that the Department for Transport will continue its positive work in active travel, with the latest round of funding of £200 million including rurality as a factor for the first time.

The previous cycling Minister visited north Devon’s iconic Tarka trail. Completing a stretch of that trail would see the north and south coasts of Devon fully connected. The project was ranked second out of six submitted by Devon County Council. The council team met the Minister to explain their frustration at having the five Exeter-based projects succeed, yet the second highest priority project rejected. I am delighted that rurality is now being considered following the Minister’s visit, and that the Tarka trail project is now being resubmitted. I hope that Active Travel England and the Department will look favourably upon it, and take further steps to enable more active travel solutions come to fruition in rural Britain.

Large counties such as Devon, with big urban centres and an enormous rural hinterland, need different approaches for those two elements. As a community, we would benefit hugely from electric bikes, which can undertake longer, hillier journeys and enable people who may not be able to cycle so far on a traditional bike to do so. Again, electric bike hire facilities are available at transport hubs in Exeter but not Barnstaple.

To begin to decarbonise our transport network, we need to look to transport hubs, where active travel can potentially be the first or last mile. To do that, our buses and trains should be better at taking bikes, hubs should have better bike storage and there should be electric vehicle chargers, if travellers are connecting to buses or trains, alongside public toilets.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I am taking advantage of the hon. Lady’s generosity, for which I am grateful. I am in full agreement with what she says about transport hubs, where there can be electric bikes, non-electric bikes, and bus and rail interchanges. In our community, we have several railway lines: Settle to Carlisle, the Furness line, the Lakes line and the main line. My great concern is that we stand to lose railway station ticket offices at Grange, Appleby and Windermere. Would those not be great places to have hubs? Is that not a good argument to ensure we maintain fully-staffed railway stations in rural communities?

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is important to look at rurality in how we deal with all infrastructure developments. I know that my own ticket office in Barnstaple has concerns. I have only one trainline, so his constituency is particularly well connected. We need to recognise that, where there is a sparse population, ticket offices are working less than in a busy town centre. We need to be more innovative in our approach, to ensure that residents who do not use trains so often can comfortably use the train station and transport hubs.

I was coming on to say that facilities such as public toilets are a vital part of transport hubs. Barnstaple’s bus station toilets have not reopened since March 2020. If we are serious about encouraging public transport usage and decarbonising our transport, we need to recognise that longer journeys, with longer waits between buses and trains, require these additional facilities to be present, particularly for our older residents. The lack of hubs that are safe, warm and have the right facilities makes using public transport far harder in locations such as North Devon at this time.

Far too many routes in rural Britain are single-carriageway, 60-mile-an-hour roads. If we are to tackle that head-on, to facilitate safer cycling and walking on those roads, we need additional paths to be constructed to facilitate things such as safe school journeys on foot or bike. Although today’s debate focuses on decarbonisation, we could also consider the health benefits of an active travel mode to work or school, which often seem to be somewhat neglected.

I recognise that, as was mentioned earlier, there are examples across the UK of great rural transport schemes. However, as with so many matters around rurality, as discussed in the debate that I led on levelling up rural Britain, it is harder for these examples of best practice to be shared between councils and communities. I hope that as we move towards decarbonising our transportation, more support is given to overstretched councils to share best practice and roll out solutions to rural as well as urban Britain and find funding solutions that give councils the ability to deliver a decarbonisation plan that reflects rurality, alongside an acceptance that the costs per capita will differ. In areas reliant on their tourists, the population swells enormously in the summer, which, again, is rarely reflected in funding settlements or even the calculation of carbon pollution.

Rural Britain deserves to see its transport decarbonised. Our productivity is reduced because of the poor transport links. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister has plans in his Department to ensure that rurality is rapidly included in future funding announcements and that there are long-term settlements lying ahead—it was so warmly welcomed to have rurality mentioned in the current round of active travel funding—because we all want to level up and decarbonise transport in rural Britain.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Order. I remind any hon. Members wanting to speak that they should bob if they have not done so. Thank you so much. I will ask Jim Shannon to speak next.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

You were first on the list, Jim.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

This is the first time you have been called first, I know.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

To be first on the list—my goodness. I am almost in a state of shock. Mr Davies, you are very kind. Thank you for giving me the chance to contribute. Others will contribute as well.

I thank Selaine Saxby for leading today’s debate and setting the scene so well. She is right. The examples from her constituency are replicated across all the other constituencies represented here. Those hon. Members who have intervened so far have given an indication of the same issues.

As someone who represents a rural constituency, I have stated before that it is imperative that there is sustainable and economical transport for our constituents who live out in the countryside. I am very fortunate in that I have lived in the countryside all my life. I am very pleased to do so. I love the green fields; I do not like the concrete—that is no secret. That is why London does not really appeal to me as a place where I would want to live—there is not enough greenery around me to enjoy. But that is a choice that I have and that I have been able to make over the years.

We have seen the expansion of “green” transport to protect and preserve our atmosphere and environment, and we must continue to do this as time goes on. The hon. Lady outlined that. The issue must be addressed not only in England but UK-wide to ensure that we are consistent and equal in our efforts to decarbonise rural transport. I realise that the Minister is responsible only for England, but my comments will be on Northern Ireland, as they always are, and what we have done there.

Electric car charging points are few and far between. In rural areas, we have few or no charging points; they are always concentrated, as it is probably right that they should be, in towns—in my constituency, it is the towns of Newtownards and Comber. There are not enough charging points; I realise that. Central Government here have taken a decision to support the Northern Ireland Assembly and, with that process in mind, have allocated money to ensure that charging points are available across my constituency as well. There is an issue not with the number of charging points but with the time it takes to charge a car. The hon. Member for North Devon talked about needing 20 feet of cable to charge her car. Wherever there is a charging point, it is also important to have enough charging connections. I am not in any way influenced to buy an electric car, but my sons have done so; they are moving with the times, while their father may not be anxious to do that. My point is that we need charging points and enough connections. If it takes six hours to charge a car, as some people have indicated to me, then that tells me that we need more connections.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Transitioning the country from petrol to electric vehicles requires extensive work that needs to be done by 2030. The Government have already acknowledged that poor grid connectivity in rural areas could be a real problem when it comes to the charging infrastructure. Does the hon. Member agree that the current reliance on the private sector to decide on charge point locations and the lack of central policy around that could create a barrier to reaching the target?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Lady for her wise and salient words. In Newtownards for example, people can charge their electric cars at the shopping centre, but if they want to go elsewhere in the town, they cannot charge their cars. Councils have a key role in prioritising charging points and, as the hon. Lady said, we must not depend on private companies, who may put charging points only in places that are advantageous to them. I am not saying such companies do not have a role, but the issue needs to be looked at more widely and in greater depth.

I am pleased to record a recent development by Wrightbus, whose headquarters are in Ballymena, in Northern Ireland, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Ian Paisley; indeed, my hon. Friend talked about this last week at Transport questions in the main Chamber. Wrightbus has secured a major order to supply 117 zero-emission buses across England, thanks to an investment of £25.3 million by the Government. That is an example of the many things that the Government are doing.

Operated by First Bus, the buses will be rolled out across Yorkshire, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Hampshire, and will enable passengers to enjoy greener, cleaner journeys. Therefore there is a strategy and we, in Northern Ireland, are very much part of that. The new buses will be manufactured by Wrightbus in Ballymena, supporting hundreds of new high-skilled jobs to help level up and grow the economy. Some of those workers live in my constituency of Strangford and travel to the Wrightbus headquarters for their work, so there is a spin-off in jobs, opportunity and economic advantage.

The new additional funding brings the vision of a net zero transport network one step closer to reality. The double-decker battery electric buses are 44% more efficient grid to wheel, saving energy costs and carbon. That is another example of how we are moving forward. The fact that the buses are manufactured in Ballymena means that the whole United Kingdom has the chance to benefit from that advantage, and hopefully other companies will be able to do the same.

The funding is an additional investment from the zero-emission buses regional area scheme, which was launched in 2021 to allow local transport authorities to bid for funding for zero-emission buses and supporting infrastructure. The Government have a policy that is working. Obviously it is a first stage, but I believe the policy will be able to go a lot further.

While it is a welcome and much-needed step, it goes back to my point that this needs to be a UK-wide measure. As the buses are manufactured in Northern Ireland, it would be fantastic for the Northern Ireland economy if some of the buses could be administered across the Province. We manufacture and sell the buses across the United Kingdom, but unfortunately we do not have much take-up back home, but I know Translink, our bus company, has purchased some.

The Secretary of State for Transport met Wrightbus representatives to discuss the success and stated that it would help level up transport across the country, yet the funding has been awarded only to places in England. While I respect the fact that infrastructure and transport are devolved matters, there needs to be greater communication between Westminster and the devolved Governments in relation to nationwide levelling up. I support the Government’s levelling-up policy. I think they have taken giant leaps to make levelling up happen, and this is such an example.

We need ideas for decarbonising public transport in more rural areas, where the population is more dispersed. As others have said, we do not have the continuity or regularity of buses that we should have in rural communities in order to incentivise people to leave their cars and use buses. We in the countryside—especially where I live in the Ards peninsula; indeed, in the whole of the Ards peninsula—depend on our cars, whether they are diesel, petrol or, in my son’s case, electric.

It will always be challenging and expensive to provide the decarbonisation of public transport, but many residents have brought to my attention that some rural buses routes are extremely limited anyway, and I want to put that on the record. There is hope that installing hydrogen buses in rural areas will further discourage people from using cars, which is certainly the intention. People with cars can jump in them and go—they do not have to wait for a bus to come along—but others are probably in a position where they can do that. The use of hydrogen buses and other approaches tend to focus on densely populated urban areas, as there may be a critical mass of people to support public transport services, so it is great to see some Government commitment and willingness to ensure that efforts are made to decarbonise our rural communities too.

I hope that the Minister can join me in congratulating Wrightbus, take the comments of Members from across the House into consideration, and ensure that there is equal opportunity for rural decarbonisation across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government) 9:56, 7 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank Selaine Saxby for securing the debate. I think we all agree that this is a really important topic, and it is good to have the opportunity to air the issues.

I am sure we are all aware that domestic transport is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. The Department for Transport’s 2022 statistical estimates report that cars emit more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than trains and coaches, for the obvious reason that trains and coaches convey more people, so maximising the number of people in a vehicle for each journey is a really important part of meeting our emissions targets. The example that the Department gives is a long-distance one: on a journey between London and Glasgow, the average petrol car emits over four times more CO2 than the equivalent journey by coach for each person, or 3.3 times more CO2 per passenger than an electric car, once it has been taken into account that we do not generate all our electricity in a totally green way.

In rural areas, it is proving really difficult to get such efficiencies and cut the greenhouse gases that we emit because of the high level of dependency on private cars, which are mostly non-electric. Our bus services are already very poor and have been driven to the verge of extinction by the covid pandemic, and it is well documented that usage has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels. In Shropshire, services have continued to be cut since 2020 because they are no longer considered commercially viable. Obviously, we are not just talking about the tiny hamlets where everyone accepts it would be uneconomical and unsuitable for a large bus to trundle through; market towns of under 20,000 or 30,000 people are suffering as well.

North Shropshire has five market towns with fewer than 20,000 people, which contain about half the population of the area. There are also a significant number of larger villages that sit on main roads, and they are all pretty poorly served. There is only one bus service running in the whole county on a Sunday, and the weekday and Saturday services have been reduced, with early and end-of-day services being cut back. Even some Saturday services are at risk: the service from Shrewsbury to Market Drayton in my constituency, and on to Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent, is at risk of being axed on a Saturday. It has been given an interim stay of execution by Shropshire Council, but given that the council has missed on the bus back better funding and money from its bus improvement plan as part of the levelling-up bid, it is now looking to make cuts of at least £150 million over the next three years, and I fear for route’s future. As the hon. Member for North Devon said, we need to take into account that Government grants for public transport in rural areas are more expensive than grants for urban areas. We need to accept that and consider whether the need requires them.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

Does the hon. Lady agree that, far too often, our rural bus routes are the first thing that is threatened when our large rural councils face funding pressures?

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

Yes, I agree. We have absolutely seen that in North Shropshire and across the rest of the county. It is causing us a number of different issues, in addition to those of climate emissions. Already in my constituency, it is no longer possible to access one of our two key hospitals in Telford from Oswestry without changing services at least twice. There is no direct public transport service at all between Market Drayton, a town of around 12,000 people, and the sizeable town of Telford, where there are all sorts of extra services that people might want to access.

The impact of those poor and continually reducing services is twofold. First, a private car is a necessary part of life in the countryside or in one of the smaller towns, and many households have to find the money for at least two if the adults in those households work in separate directions. Once they have forked out for a private car and accepted the expense of running it, they are less likely to use the available public transport, so we are in a downward spiral of cuts to public transport as it becomes more and more uneconomic.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

It is not just those who have one or two cars in their households; it is their families and where they work. By and large, if someone wants a job in my constituency, they have to travel to Newtownards or Belfast. Then, there are the extra complications of employment and getting access at the right time for shift work, and buses are probably not on at that time. So there are other complications for people who live in the countryside.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

Yes. Secondly, if someone cannot access a car because they are young, are prevented from driving by their health or simply cannot afford to run one, they become stranded on the island of where they live. They cannot sign up to a college course, they cannot commit to a job outside the area and, in many cases, they cannot access what is becoming increasingly centralised healthcare provision without calling on endless favours from friends and family or using private cars instead.

The lack of a usable service not only means we emit far more greenhouse gases than we used to or, more accurately, than we need to, but there is a social and economic cost. For instance, the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Gobowen, near Oswestry in North Shropshire, is a top-class orthopaedic hospital with a dedicated veterans’ centre that takes patients from all over the country. We are extremely proud of it. Recently, however, the hospital is struggling to recruit and retain its staff and one of the factors in that is the lack of a bus service back into Oswestry for those working early or late shifts because those end-of-day services have been axed from the route. More widely, the issue is driving young people from our towns, increasing the proportion of elderly residents, and harming the economic vibrance of the high streets.

How can we reverse that in an area where the council is spending 85% of its budget on social care and where bus services have been so badly depleted that the remaining routes are uneconomic? At this point, I should also mention the importance of active travel. For an increasingly elderly population, in an area where rural roads are single carriageway with quite fast speeds, it is probably not sensible to suggest that those people should be cycling every day between the market towns, which are some distance away from each other.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

The focus on active travel is sensible, because it has both an environmental and health benefit. However, there are many reasons that is not a suitable focus for rural communities when it comes to decarbonisation. Does the hon. Member share my concern that while the Government’s active travel strategy seems to acknowledge that, they have yet to set out any further specific guidance?

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

I think that is a fair point. Active travel has a role to play in towns, but it is concerning that we are not investing in public transport to move people around in rural areas. We need some clarity on that.

Going back to cycling and walking, many shorter journeys within towns can be made easier on a bike or on foot if there is a sensible network of crossings and dropped kerbs. In towns such as North Shropshire’s, which are largely medieval market towns, it would clearly be difficult to add a big network of cycle lanes into the narrow roads. During covid, councils were very quick to reimagine the way vehicles flowed around the town, making a pedestrian-friendly space workable at a fast pace. It would be good to see those councils being encouraged to continue to find practical ways of allowing people to move more easily around the centre of our towns. Removing the need for even a proportion of short car journeys, even if only on days when the weather is good, would surely have an impact on car emissions and—as Margaret Ferrier just pointed out—improves the health and wellbeing of anyone who decides to walk and cycle a little more.

Returning to the thorny issue of public transport, I am afraid that national intervention is probably needed. I welcome the restoring your railways scheme; North Shropshire has a great bid in for the Oswestry to Gobowen line, with an important stop at the hospital, and I take this opportunity to plug that bid. However, railway stations are not accessible for everyone. There is not really access for all where there is no step-free access to the railway station, which is another big problem in rural constituencies. At Whitchurch in my constituency, people cannot access the southbound platform, so despite the fact that there is actually a pretty good public transport service into Shrewsbury and beyond, on the main line to Crewe and Manchester, if someone has trouble with steps or has a lot of heavy baggage or a pushchair, they will turn again to their private car.

We are on the list for the Access for All plan. We have made our bid, which I hope will be successful, but it takes years and years to come through. If we are trying to get to net zero by 2050, the Access for All process really does need to be speeded up and, let’s face it, most places do not have a railway station or a railway line. Many of those stations have been axed from rural market towns and would be totally uneconomic to reinstate, particularly as those towns largely have housing estates over the former track, so we need to have a nationally led bus strategy that addresses people getting out of their cars and on to buses.

What would that look like? I am open-minded about demand-led travel and the technology that enables it, and it may well be part of the solution to improve connectivity and public transport in the more rural parts of Britain, and to integrate that with other parts of the network. We see elements of that with some of the voluntary schemes that are in place—the dial-a-ride, North Salop Wheelers-type schemes that help to get elderly and more vulnerable people out of their houses and into the towns on market days. However, those schemes are volunteer-run by nature, which is not necessarily sustainable. Demand-led travel might be part of the solution, but in areas where the population is sparse and the benefits of lift sharing and journey planning might be more limited, we still need a proper investigation into the relative benefits of demand-led travel and a good look at reliable, clock-face services for smaller market towns and the feed-in services from their surrounding villages.

We do, of course, need to talk about the types of buses—the fact that they do not all need to be huge, and that in future, they probably need to be electric or hydrogen-fuelled—but I will not elaborate on that point, because it has already been made. We should also accept that in small villages, there will always be a need for the private car, and we need to continue to incentivise the roll-out of electric cars. Public charging points are, therefore, really important. We are only just beginning to see the roll-out of public charging points in North Shropshire, but the capacity of the electricity infrastructure to cope with the additional demand on the rural grid is absolutely critical. I urge the Minister to consider not only the number of points, but the ability of the underlying energy infrastructure to support what is going to be an increasing electricity load, particularly in rural areas.

Overall, I support empowering local councils to develop their own public transport plans within the framework of a national strategy to find the solution that serves their area best. Empowering means funding and supporting those councils with the expertise they need to deliver a better future for rural transport, and funding them to tackle the additional rural distances is a critical factor. The rural economy, just like the climate, is approaching a tipping point, so we need a radical approach to public transport that can help tip both things in the right direction.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport) 10:09, 7 March 2023

Thank you, Mr Davies; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again. I congratulate Selaine Saxby on securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating it.

The hon. Member opened the debate very well, setting out a number of issues that are the same across pretty much all rural areas in the UK. As she said, many of the solutions for our towns and cities simply would not suit a rural setting or be as efficient. She mentioned a lack of electric vehicle chargers and the reinstatement of rail lines. She also welcomed the Government’s £200 million active travel budget and plans, although that pales into insignificance compared with the Scottish Government’s investment in active travel, as I will set out.

Sally-Ann Hart mentioned zero-emission buses and the requirement for further Government support. I could not agree more, and I will touch on that later. Margaret Ferrier made an excellent point about social isolation, and how we need to be careful that rural decarbonisation solutions do not entrench those issues or make them worse. She also made a salient point about capacity issues in our rural electricity grid.

Jim Shannon— I call him the hon. Member for Strangford and Westminster Hall West—gave an excellent speech, as usual. My biggest surprise was that he said he liked something green; that may also be a surprise to some people watching, certainly in Scotland. He mentioned the time it takes to charge a car. In a recent debate in this place, we spoke about the charging issues in Northern Ireland. As an EV owner myself, I would have been unlikely to make the switch if I lived in Northern Ireland, such is the paucity of public chargers over there. He also mentioned the importance of the UK Government’s ZEBRA—zero-emission bus regional areas—scheme, and obviously he has Wrightbus in Northern Ireland. The implementation of that scheme is frankly shocking, but I will touch on that later.

Helen Morgan made an excellent point about the issues with recruitment and retention for all sorts of businesses and services in rural areas because of the lack of connectivity and public transport. That does not help with the brain drain of young people leaving rural areas to go to cities and large towns. She also spoke about the lack of rural rail services in North Shropshire and elsewhere, which leads me to my own remarks.

Scotland has led the way on transport innovation over the years, and our track record on rail decarbonisation is yet another example of that. The world’s first electric railway locomotive was powered by batteries and invented in Scotland. It was designed by Robert Davidson of Aberdeen and first tested on the Glasgow to Edinburgh line. If we fast-forward over a century, one of the first battery trains to be used in regular passenger service was deployed on the Aberdeen to Ballater line. It is powered by clean, renewable electricity provided by the hydro board.

Today, the Bo’ness and Kinneil railway is seeing testing of a class 314 train formerly used as a workhorse on the Strathclyde lines. It has been converted to hydrogen-fuelled operation, and it is being put through its paces by the University of St Andrews, Transport Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and Ballard Motive Solutions. That kind of innovation is one part of the deployment of investment and policy decisions that make Scotland a leader in the decarbonisation of rural transport.

The reopening of Reston station in the Scottish Borders is another such example, with £20 million of investment from the Scottish Government accompanied by £3 million from Scottish Borders Council. That investment will improve bus links to and from the station, making it a hub for an area of the east borders that has been poorly served by public transport. Reston itself is a village with only a few hundred souls, but the integrated transport package introduced by local and national Government has turned it into a major transport centre, giving access to major cities on both sides of the border to a population that was previously either poorly served or not served at all by links beyond the local area.

The Scottish Borders were hit harder than most areas by the post-war retrenchment in rail. Peebles, Eyemouth, Kelso, Duns, Hawick, Selkirk and Melrose—I am starting to sound like a Bill McLaren rugby commentary—were all linked by rail to the wider country and the world. However, post-war mistakes in rail management across the UK, and the Beeching axe, left the borders with no rail links at all for 40 years, until the Scottish Government reopened the Borders railway in 2015. That new route is among the first in line for the next tranche of electrification on Scotland’s railways. After 40 years of isolation from the rest of this island’s rail network, the borders are seeing a bonanza in rail, integrated public transport and decarbonisation, which is surely unmatched by any comparable rural area on these islands.

The Scottish Borders are just one example of how decarbonisation is not constrained to our urban areas. We have seen the Invernet service, which provides commuter rail in the Inverness area, as well as the opening of the Inverness Airport railway station. Reopening the station at Beauly, which has a population of just over 1,000, generated more than 50,000 passenger journeys a year pre covid.

In the north-east, we have seen a step change in rail provision with the full introduction of the Aberdeen Crossrail, which connects Inverurie to Montrose via Aberdeen with regular fast services. Those communities will benefit still further from the rolling programme of electrification in Scotland, with main routes to the central belt, as well as the Inverness to Aberdeen route, becoming wired. The programme will also electrify the Glasgow to Dumfries route—indeed, part of it is being electrified as we speak—giving a huge boost to rural communities along its length. It will also give us scope to look again at the rural stations closed by the Beeching axe and at how we can apply the lessons learned from the Reston reopening to another area in the south of Scotland.

By 2045, every rail line in Scotland bar the West Highland and Far North lines, and the Girvan to Stranraer line, will be fully electrified. That is quite an achievement in a country where modernisation was ignored by this place for decades, until devolution and the Scottish Parliament came along. Clearly, 100% electrification would be preferable, but the economic reality is that electrification cannot always be justified in rural areas. However, that must not mean that more sparsely populated locales miss out on decarbonisation, and lines without full electrification will see the roll-out of innovative and game-changing trains such as battery electric and, potentially, hydrogen trains.

It is not just our rail network that is being transformed through funding from the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland. Fully 20% of the funding and buses on the road as a result of the first round of ScotZEB—the Scottish zero-emission bus challenge fund—went to operators in rural areas, from Campbeltown to Lockerbie and Aberdeenshire to Dumfries and Galloway.

In addition, Loganair has set a target to have a fully zero-emission fleet of aircraft serving Scotland’s islands and rural communities by 2040. Orkney is the hotbed for trials of electric and hydrogen-fuelled planes, with the islands expected to see the first scheduled zero-emission services as it becomes feasible to start rolling out the technology for passenger service. Those air links are a lifeline for the communities they serve, and making them net zero will play a crucial role in Scotland’s journey to being a net zero country by 2045. All this is evidence that decarbonisation is not just about urban and suburban travel; with the right strategy and package of investments, we can push modal shift in rural areas too.

Rural Scotland is also powering ahead in decarbonising private transport. Among the local authorities with the highest per capita penetration of public charge points are Orkney, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Argyll and Bute, Highland, Shetland, and Dumfries and Galloway. Most of the time in those areas, there is no alternative to private motors, so we want to support infrastructure to ensure that EVs are a practical solution. All those areas have seen a massive increase in public chargers over the past few years; since 2019, their numbers have more than doubled in Orkney and increased by 177% in Argyll and Bute. They are also up 194% in Highland, marrying up with the A9 electric highway, which links the highlands and the central belt. If we are serious about rolling out chargers to the level needed to hit our targets to phase out petrol and diesel cars, the number in rural Scotland needs to continue to increase at its current rate. The Scottish Government have shown the way, and it is for others—particularly the DFT—to learn from their lead.

I cannot let pass an opportunity to highlight Scotland’s transformational active travel budget, which will reach £320 million—10% of Scotland’s entire travel budget—by the end of this Parliament. Bear in mind that that is in a country one tenth the size of that served by the DFT, whose £200 million budget was heralded—no offence to the hon. Member for North Devon. That £320 million investment will upgrade our network for walking and wheeling across the country and, in particular, give extra opportunities for integration with the rest of the public transport network. It is game-changing. I urge the DFT to match that commitment, rather than throwing yet more money into the bottomless pit that is Greater London transport spending.

Scotland is showing that rural decarbonisation can be achieved if the will is there. Making integrated transport a key policy objective, as well as relatively modest investment, can produce huge dividends for communities that were previously isolated from the public transport network. We know that in rural communities there will always be a need for cars in a way that simply is not the case in more urban areas, but providing alternatives to private transport when it is practical to do so and ensuring that the investment is targeted in the right places can help to drive modal shift and drive down emissions, and provide a more sustainable transport system across the board into the bargain.

As I have done many times before, I commend to the Minister the work that the Scottish Government are doing and invite him to study closely what is happening in Scotland, so that the UK Government can follow Scotland’s lead and apply the lessons to rural communities here in England. The UK Government’s reluctance to invest appropriately in this area—as with so many other areas—limits Scotland’s ability to go even further even faster, and it is time for the DFT and the UK Government to get their collective finger out on these issues.

Photo of Simon Lightwood Simon Lightwood Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:20, 7 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to speak for the Opposition in a Westminster Hall debate for the very first time.

I congratulate Selaine Saxby on securing this debate and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. The hon. Member’s opening remarks underscored the importance of decarbonising our transport, especially in our rural communities, and the contributions from Members throughout have demonstrated why we need to take urgent action in this area. Indeed, decarbonising our transport sector is one of the most pressing challenges to overcome if we are to meet our net zero goals.

I am proud to represent the Wakefield constituency, which has both the city of Wakefield and a large rural community, with villages such as Netherton, Middlestown, Durkar, Hall Green and Woolley. I know first hand the challenges those areas have in accessing transport, and I understand that many of the solutions that work in cities may well not work as well in rural communities.

I will address a number of the various transport sectors that Members have referred to, but I will start with active travel, which is a sure-fire way of improving air quality, reducing congestion, improving physical health and, of course, lowering carbon emissions. Research shows that the benefit to cost ratio of investments in walking and cycling are estimated at 5.62:1.

However, one of the biggest barriers to active travel, especially in our rural communities, is safety. A recent survey found, unsurprisingly, that most people prefer to cycle where it is safe, and the same can be said for walking. Improving real and perceived safety is an effective way of encouraging more people to walk and cycle, and the Government and local councils must do what they can to improve routes and roads to facilitate that.

The Government really need to step up. In 2017, the Department for Transport provided guidance for local authorities to develop local cycling and walking infrastructure plans, but there was no funding available for that. I am pleased that many rural authorities have developed such a plan. However, my hon. Friend Gill Furniss recently asked a parliamentary question to find out how many councils had developed one, and the answer was just 78, which is only around a quarter of all local authorities. That is simply not good enough and the Government must do more to ensure that rural areas have these plans in place.

Another example is the Government’s consultation on personal safety measures on streets in England, which specifically covered rural streets, to seek views on how street design, maintenance and operation could be improved to make people feel safer. The consultation closed in August 2021, yet 19 months on the Government have not responded. I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light on that.

As the hon. Member for North Devon said, many people in rural communities are very dependent on cars, and we must continue to encourage the transition to electric vehicles. We have some good momentum as we transfer away from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles. That is one of the primary ways to decarbonise our transport. The RAC estimates that there are now 712,000 zero-emission electric cars on our roads, along with more than 400,000 plug-in hybrids.

Jim Shannon is right that charging points are few and far between in rural areas. However, people might not think that, given what the Government talk about. The latest figures show that we have just 37,055 public chargers in the UK at the moment. Rural communities are lagging far behind.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

The hon. Gentleman is making a very valid point. As we make the transition towards electric vehicles and electric heating, there is a big issue about grid capacity and resilience in rural areas; I just do not believe that it will cope at the moment. The Government have enabled challenger companies to the traditional distribution network operators—they are called independent distribution network operators—to bring in their own infrastructure. The issue in rural areas is that metal pylons for electricity transmission are extremely controversial. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is going to happen very quickly and that, as we push the transition, decisions will have to be made about where to locate the infrastructure? We have to work with local communities, and in rural areas we need to work on the basis that the infrastructure needs to go underground.

Photo of Simon Lightwood Simon Lightwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Member makes a valid point, and if the Government are serious about installing 300,000 charging points, they need to redouble their efforts. At this rate, we would not get to even 100,000 by the date they have set. Monthly installations would need to rise by 288% to meet that ambition.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

Just before the intervention from Jonathan Edwards, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that rural areas are missing out in terms of the charging network. I made the point in my speech that in Scotland that is not the case. The areas with the highest penetration of public charge points per capita are Orkney, the Western Isles, Argyll and Bute, Highland, Shetland, and Dumfries and Galloway. That is because the driver was Scottish Government public investment. Down here, the UK Government have relied on private investment. Does the hon. Gentleman think that is why rural areas in England do not have the connectivity that Scotland has?

Photo of Simon Lightwood Simon Lightwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Member makes an interesting point, and I share his concerns about the Government’s focus in achieving their targets. Obviously, this is a pressing matter for our rural communities, which are being underserved, and if drivers cannot access charging points, they will be far less likely to make the transition to electric.

In London, there are 131 charging points per 100,000 of the population, but in the south-west region the figure is a third of that—44 per 100,000. The hon. Member for Strangford will be interested to hear that the figure is only 19 per 100,000 in Northern Ireland. Indeed, more charging points were installed here in Westminster in the previous quarter than in any English region outside London. The Government must urgently come up with a plan for how they will drastically speed up the roll-out, especially in rural communities, otherwise the campaign to get people to transition their vehicles will be undermined completely.

As the shadow Minister covering buses, it would be remiss of me not to mention the vital role that the sector is playing in decarbonising our transport. That is especially the case in rural areas, where buses can be a lifeline for many, especially the elderly—connecting people with friends and family, and getting people to work, hospital or school.

As Helen Morgan said, getting to hospital appointments is really important, but the rural bus network is desperately struggling, and cuts in Government funding have hampered rural routes, leaving behind a patchy network that cannot get people from A to B. I have seen that in my constituency, where several services have been cut altogether and others run at a reduced frequency. One service, which is the only bus covering a village of about 500 people, runs only until 5 pm. Another village service runs only three buses a day.

People cannot get to work, cannot get to the shops and cannot attend hospital appointments with services like that, and they are left having to depend on taxis or the car when the bus does not turn up. That is creating what the charity CPRE calls transport deserts, whereby public transport is severely limited, which stops people being able to do basics such as shopping or meeting friends. In 2020, CPRE found that 56% of small rural towns had become transport deserts or were at risk of becoming a transport desert. I imagine that figure will have risen since then.

In recent years, local authorities have had to step in to support many rural bus services that have become commercially unviable, but reductions in their funding have meant that many routes have been lost. That is why Labour’s plans for franchising could help many rural communities and give them greater certainty over the routes they have. I continue to urge the Government to look at the proposal in more detail.

Furthermore, buses need to be transitioned from diesel. The Government announced that they would deliver 4,000 zero-emission buses in this Parliament, but, as I pointed out during Transport questions in the Chamber last week, only 341 have been ordered and just six are on our roads. At that rate, it will take 23 years to meet the Government’s target. Many bus operators serving rural routes will be relying on Government grants to decarbonise their fleets, so the lack of progress with the scheme is hampering the business planning process and efforts to push forward with bus company investments.

I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to debate this important issue. It is clear that our rural communities want to play a part in the clean transport revolution, but they need more support to do so. Whether we are talking about buses, cycling, walking or cars, there are opportunities for decarbonisation, but rural areas are lagging behind. The Government must match their rhetoric with a proper plan to deliver what they have promised, so that we can see those zero-emission buses on our roads, have enough electric charging points to encourage people to transition, and encourage people to cycle and walk more. The Government must get their act together, and quickly; otherwise, it will be our rural villages and towns that suffer the most.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 10:30, 7 March 2023

What a delight it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Selaine Saxby on securing this debate on decarbonising rural transport. I am very aware of this issue as a constituency MP; in Hereford and South Herefordshire, we have many of the issues that have been described. I do not mean to disappoint my hon. Friend at the outset, but I am not going to make Treasury policy here and, least of all, as a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury, a few weeks before a Budget. Nevertheless, a wide range of issues have been raised and it is important to engage with them all.

As my hon. Friend rightly noted, buses are at the centre of the public transport network, but even more so in rural areas than in many urban areas. I and colleagues recognise their important role in providing sustainable transport options and independence to people who live in the countryside. They also have an essential role to play in achieving net zero by 2050 and in creating the cleaner and healthier places to live that we all aspire to have.

On decarbonisation, I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in celebrating Devon’s recent success in joining the Government-funded ADEPT Live Labs 2 programme for decarbonising local roads in the UK. I am delighted that Devon will carry out a carbon-negative project on the A382, including the Jetty Marsh link road. That is part of a suite of corridor and place-based interventions, trialling, testing and showcasing applications in connection with the Wessex partnership, an exciting project that will be provided with more than £12 million for the three-year programme.

As colleagues will know, the national bus strategy was published in March 2021, with the long-term aim of making buses more frequent and reliable, easier to understand and use, and better co-ordinated and cheaper. The strategy asked all local transport authorities to develop a bus service improvement plan, setting out how they would improve services. It also stated that local transport plans must be clear on

“how interventions across local transport modes will drive decarbonisation in their area.”

I am delighted that Devon received £14.1 million in BSIP funding, £1.87 million of which is being targeted at bus priority measures that will benefit routes into Barnstaple and to North Devon District Hospital. I was also delighted to hear about GWR’s work in my hon. Friend’s constituency, where a bus-branch line has been introduced between Barnstaple and Lynton and Lynmouth, co-ordinating bus and rail timetables to offer a more integrated travel experience for passengers. I hope that there will be more to come in the following year.

The bus strategy makes it clear that the needs of rural transport users should be given equal consideration to those of users in urban areas. However, I recognise that it can be challenging to provide conventional bus services for rural areas, which have widely dispersed populations and consequent travel patterns that are hard to cover effectively. That is why demand-responsive services, which have been discussed today, can be used in some places to meet their needs, and work is under way to assess whether that can be more effective than traditional public transport solutions.

Colleagues will be aware of the £20 million rural mobility fund, which supports 17 innovative demand-led minibus trials in rural areas. They use app-based technologies so that passengers can book a journey through their smartphone, and intelligent software then works out the right route to pick up and drop off passengers, given the demand. The Department has made sure that the services use accessible minibuses and can still be booked through a website or with a phone call so that no one is excluded from using them.

As Helen Morgan pointed out, demand-responsive services are not the perfect solution to every challenge. Other schemes need to be trialled, and have been, but have proven not to be sustainable. A balance needs to be struck between providing a useful service that is responsive and frequent and running too much mileage cost-ineffectively, with too few passengers. That is why it is so important that each scheme should participate in a detailed monitoring and evaluation process, so that the Department can learn about the most effective approaches.

Some of the pilots use zero-emission vehicles. The scheme in Essex has been electrified since day one, providing a zero-emission demand-responsive service to rural areas around Braintree, and Surrey County Council has started to roll out its electric minibus route on its Mole Valley connect service.

On buses more broadly, colleagues will know that, in 2020, we committed to introducing 4,000 zero-emission buses and, ultimately, to achieving an all zero-emission bus fleet. It is nice to hear Jim Shannon rightly supporting the superb achievements of Wrightbus in Northern Ireland with regard to not just electrification, but its work on the Hydroliner, using hydrogen technology.

The approach to zero-emission buses will support our climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and support green jobs across the country. Since 2020, the Government have funded an estimated 3,452 zero-emission buses across the UK, some 1,400 of which have been supported by funding from the zero-emission bus regional areas, which has rightly been highlighted. Great progress has been made, with more than 500 buses ordered so far under the ZEBRA scheme, including 117 electric buses that have been ordered for four different local authorities, as announced in the House last week.

Buses are not the only zero-emission vehicles on our roads. It is right to think about the question of zero-emission vehicles more widely, as well as the charging infrastructure network, mentioned by several colleagues, that needs to be as accessible, affordable and secure in rural areas as elsewhere. Last March, the Government published their electric vehicle infrastructure strategy, which set out plans to accelerate the roll-out of the network. We expect at least 300,000 public charge points to be installed across the UK by 2030. There are already over 37,000 open-access public chargers on UK roads, with more than 600 new chargers added to our road network each month on average, and public charging devices have more than tripled in the past four years. That is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of charge points in homes and workplaces. We believe that we are on track to meet local expectations.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

I like the Minister’s comments on the ZEBRA scheme, even though it has been an utter shambles from start to finish. Scotland has more zero-emission buses on the road in a country that is a tenth of the size.

On chargers, the Government launched Project Rapid, and the Labour Front Bencher, Simon Lightwood, mentioned the number of chargers in the UK. Scotland already has 73% more rapid chargers per head than the rest of the UK. In the last quarter of last year, the number increased by nearly 15%, more than double the rate at which England increased its rapid chargers—the east and west midlands rate was 4.3%, Yorkshire was 5% and the south-east was 3.3%. Project Rapid needs to change its name, does it not?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

There is no doubt that the question of how we get lots of rapid chargers into motorway service areas and other parts of the trunk network is complex, because it requires long-term solutions based on translating large amounts of electricity through distribution network operators and the national grid into those areas. I was slightly surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman bragging about the Scottish Government’s achievements. He may want to look at the Daily Business published in August last year, which said that Scotland was “bottom” of the EV charging league for growth and described that as

“an embarrassing blow to the country that hosted the COP26”.

The hon. Gentleman should look not just at the number that have been installed, which perhaps is not surprising given the level of income per head that Scotland receives under the Barnett formula. If my county of Herefordshire was miraculously and sadly disentangled from its current place and floated north to abut on to Scotland, the rate of funding per head would go up by over £2,000, so perhaps it is not so surprising that the funding settlement is different and that has different effects. The Scottish record is not one to be proud of as regards the growth of charge points, and he may want to look again at the numbers he described.

We have also been looking at public and industry funding to support local authorities with the roll-out of charge points. Just last month, we announced a further £56 million of public industry funding. In Devon, there are currently 442 public charge points, of which over 100 are rapid and above, which is pretty much in line with the UK average per person and possibly even slightly higher in relation to rapid charging. That is a good start, but there is plenty still to do.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

I reiterate the point made by Gavin Newlands about grid capacity. Rural areas are being asked to look at replacing a lot of oil-fired boilers with electric alternatives, and obviously, we need to address electric charging points, but grid capacity is a fundamental restraining problem in rural areas. What are the Minister’s thoughts on how improvements to that infrastructure can be speeded up?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It is important to put this into perspective. One advantage of rural areas is that, in many cases, more so than in urban areas, people have driveways or accessible areas where they can put in charging points. Of course, domestic charging points are growing rapidly—vastly faster, as one might expect through private investment, than in the last year or two. It is a rapidly escalating curve, and rural areas have a great advantage over urban areas when it comes to charging electric vehicles. Rural areas will also benefit as improvements in technology increase vehicle range and reduce costs and range anxiety. It is a picture that we have reason to be optimistic about without in any sense being complacent about the need to continue to make rapid progress.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

I want to reiterate my initial intervention on the Labour Front Bencher, Simon Lightwood, and the point made by Helen Morgan on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. The concern is that the grid as it is will not accommodate everybody charging their cars at home; it will not cope. It would require significant extra infrastructure to transmit the electricity into rural areas. If we did that, we would put pylons everywhere and that becomes controversial. One solution in the United States is to use transport corridors—roads and rail—and go underground along those routes, which can be far more cost-effective. Of course, going underground is far more expensive than overground pylons.

There needs to be strategic thinking. These issues are devolved in Wales. Planning matters are devolved, as they are in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but there needs to be co-ordination and some thinking about how we can create the resilience and capacity for rural areas without desecrating them.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I completely agree with the hon. Member that any solution needs to respect the beauty and integrity of the area concerned. That is absolutely right, and I thank him for his suggestion, which I believe has received some consideration, but I will check with my officials.

There is a wider point. Of course, the demands on the grid are changing over time, but we have been given no reason to think that they are unsustainable. The attraction of much modern technology is that it allows much more load balancing in the timing of when cars are charged. We expect that to be a valuable source of strength and stability in the grid as we go forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon is a passionate advocate for active travel. She knows that the Department published the second cycling and walking investment strategy in the summer of last year, which includes new and updated objectives, such as increased levels of walking, including walking to school and doubling the levels of cycling. We expect to invest over £850 million in active travel between 2020 and 2023, which is a record amount of funding. As she knows, last month we announced an active travel fund of £200 million to improve walking and cycling routes and to boost local usage and economic development.

The benefits are not just economic, as has been rightly highlighted. There are also the benefits of air quality and improved health, and they play a vital role in decarbonisation. Funding is important, and we have talked about that, but it is only one part of the solution in rural areas. We also need to support increased capability in delivery, and that is why the Government are providing Devon County Council with capability funding to support the development of its county-wide rural trail—its cycling and walking infrastructure plan.

I was delighted to open the offices of Active Travel England in York a few weeks ago with Chris Boardman, our national active travel commissioner, and Danny Williams, the chief executive. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon will know from her APPG, those are people of the highest quality and the ATE is a very important development—indeed, a milestone—in how we think about the adequate and highly effective provision of active travel infrastructure and standards.

There is a mixed picture in terms of need, but not a mixed picture in terms of the commitment, energy and drive that we are trying to bring to the entire portfolio across the range of the different interventions and modes in the cause of decarbonising our country and our economy.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 10:44, 7 March 2023

It has been a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the Minister for his response and for his Department’s recognition of rurality, because it is the first time that a Department has focused on that in its funding decision. I very much hope that with him at the helm, it can do more in some other areas that we have touched on this morning, because I know that the constituents I represent care deeply about their environment and are really passionate about being able to decarbonise their transport networks. For that to happen, it is important to find rural solutions that work and deliver better value for money. Although I fully respect that the Minister could not possibly comment on things going on in the Treasury ahead of the Budget, I hope that he might have a quiet word to say that a longer-term funding solution would deliver far better value for money in areas such as rural transportation.

I want to reiterate points from colleagues, which perhaps the Minister could pass on. I did not focus too much on the grid, because it is not in his portfolio, but I fully agree with hon. Members’ comments that the grid is a real concern if we are to deliver an electric transport solution. Helen Morgan talked about hubs and the number of bus changes that people have to make on longer journeys in rural Britain. Although I warmly welcome the Minister’s observation on services to the hospital in Barnstaple, most of those services involve a change at Barnstaple bus station, where the toilets are still closed. As we look to rural solutions, we need to find better ways to ensure that such hubs work. I know that, like me, he is passionate about active travel, but we all accept that we will not do all our journeys in rural Britain on a bicycle. However, we could do the opening or closing mile of those journeys on one if our hubs worked better.

I thank hon. Members for their time and participation, and I particularly thank the Minister for his response.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered decarbonising rural transport.

Sitting suspended.