Priti calls for rail infrastructure investment
Witham MP and Chair of the Great Eastern Mainline Rail Taskforce Priti Patel has called for increased investment in rail infrastructure in Essex and the East of England. Priti was speaking during a debate in Parliament where she highlighted the benefits of new investment in upgrading and improving rail services.
House of Commons Hansard, 17 January 2019: Columns 466WH-470WH.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Evans. Out of courtesy, I must apologise to hon. Members in advance just in case—I emphasise “in case”—I need to leave before the conclusion of the debate, due to another commitment. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), for the case that she has just put, and to all other members of the Committee for their work on “Rail infrastructure investment”. I have a copy of the report and have looked at it, and it is fair to say that it covers a wide range of issues, which the hon. Lady spoke about in her very good and detailed speech.
As the Minister will know, rail infrastructure is incredibly important, not only to my constituents in Witham but to the entire east of England region. I will start by paying tribute to him, because he has recently become the Rail Minister. I had the privilege of working with him previously, in his other incarnation in the Department for Transport, so it is great to see him back there. I thank him and his officials for giving me some time recently, to discuss not only some of the issues that I will raise today, but some of my concerns, as well as the developments that are taking place on the Great Eastern main line and some of the big investment opportunities that we would like to see for the region.
The Minister will know from our recent discussions about the work of the Great Eastern main line taskforce, which I currently chair and which is putting forward the case for strategic investment in rail infrastructure. Back in 2014 we submitted to the Government a business case for a package of investments—I have it here: “exhibit A”—which I have no doubt the Minister is fully versed in, because I know he has seen copies of it. This business case from 2014 discussed the potential to deliver over £4 billion of gross value added to the economy, to support thousands of new jobs, and to help meet the transport needs of the population and housing growth in the region.
Of course, this business case was put together in 2014 by all the Members of Parliament from Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. It received a great deal of Government interest and time, with interest shown by the former Chancellor, the former Prime Minister and various Ministers, including the former Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin).
As we have seen in the east of England, and are still seeing, there is so much opportunity for economic growth in our area, with lower housing costs than in other areas. We are on a commuter line and we are accommodating a greater number of commuters and families who travel to London, and not only in Essex but across the eastern region. We are very proud of that. Families choose to enjoy the enormous benefits of living in the villages of my constituency and elsewhere in the region, while being able to work in London as well. I have to say that that is because of the Government’s wider investment in other sectors, including education—we have some amazing schools now—and quality of life is obviously a key feature too.
Of course, Essex and the east of England are fast-growing parts of the country, and they are strategically placed to deliver new jobs and economic growth. Look at what we have going on. We have world-leading businesses and centres of innovation: the Essex knowledge gateway, the University of East Anglia, Essex University and Cambridge University. They are all great hubs of intellect, innovation, jobs, economic growth and entrepreneurship. We have a diverse range of businesses, such as financial services, logistics, manufacturing, construction, modern bio-tech and science. We also have key international transport hubs, as my hon. Friend the Minister is well aware, including the key ports in London Gateway, Tilbury, Harwich and Felixstowe, and our airports at Stansted and Southend.
In Essex we have great business voices, which were instrumental in making the case for investment in our rail back in 2014. They include the Essex chamber of commerce, which made the business case, outlined the GVA of rail investment, combined the numbers and showed the economic growth that we can deliver outside London, and the new opportunities that will come our way. The Essex economy is already touching £40 billion in GVA, and obviously since 2010 the number of entrepreneurs has risen and we see business growth getting stronger and stronger. I see how much our businesses are already doing, and the jobs and prosperity they create. I am incredibly proud to see the enterprising spirit they have shown. Like me, they look forward to a future in which we can continue to build upon their contributions. They have a positive outlook for the future, not only for Essex but for the whole region.
We know that one of the key factors for growth is strategic investment in our roads and, in particular, our rail, so that we continue to grow and secure long-term investment. Of course, such investment means work on key roads and economic corridors, such as the A12 widening scheme and the dualling of the A120, but it also means investing in our rail network. Our rail network across the east of England has suffered from severe under-investment for many years. The Chair of the Transport Committee made some very important points today. She spoke about regional disparity with regard to the north of England, but of course my taskforce in the east of England has demonstrated that even notional calculations of regional finance mask regional disparities. Commuters on the Great Eastern main line, and particularly Greater Anglia commuters, are net contributors to the Treasury through their rail fares. Of course we want to see some of that money coming back out.
The Select Committee’s report quite rightly raised the whole issue of rebalancing rail investment to ensure that it is spread across the country, which I have consistently pushed for. I agree that we need to invest more widely and look at ways to support schemes in the regions and economic centres. Of course, our whole economy needs to become much more efficient, and investing in rail infrastructure across the country will help to deliver that.
However, I emphasise to the Minister that although it seems on paper that investment has been skewed towards London, partly because of the high cost of Crossrail, it is also important that we see a rebalancing exercise that does not come at the expense of excluding investment opportunities that would deliver high levels of value for money and help to drive billions of pounds back into the whole of the UK economy. Of course, we are set to benefit from approximately £2.2 billion of investment through the control period 6 process, but I stress that that investment is to cover maintenance, operations and renewal.
Paragraph 80 of the excellent report, on page 28, focuses on the historic lumpiness of renewals investment. Investment that covers maintenance, renewals, and so on goes to patch things up, and the graph on page 28 shows that the lumpiness of expenditure goes across the various control periods. We want to ensure a consistent level of investment that covers maintenance, so that we are not simply patching things up. It is a welcome commitment. From our perspective, the new refurbishment —new trains, funds for renewal, and repairs to bridges, embankments and signalling to deal with level crossings—will of course be beneficial. However, that is no substitute for a clear strategy of strategic investments in new infrastructure so that we can have a high-performing railway to support our region. That is the right thing, and it is what our commuters all want.
The right hon. Lady is making an excellent contribution on behalf of the east of England. I wonder whether she agrees that there are significant possibilities for bringing forward digitalisation of the railways. I am told that a huge amount could be done through digitalisation to better address capacity constraints, and that a relatively modest investment in global terms could be transformational in the east. My concern is that, looking ahead over these very long periods, we may well find that technology has moved much more quickly and we have not taken best advantage of those technological changes. Does the hon. Lady share that concern?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was planning to touch on the significance of digital railway. I mentioned efficiency, and the whole point is how we can use new technology to drive efficiency. Everything is part of a process, and new technology can trump things that have previously gone on. There are also new opportunities for digital signalling. For example, on the Great Eastern main line we are working with the Department for Transport and the Minister to continue to make the case for digital signalling, and part of the case that the GEML taskforce is putting forward is compelling. I know that the Minister is looking forward to receiving the business case that we are currently working on. In previous discussions and meetings he has heard me speak about the pipeline business case that we are working on, and how we will build on the 2014 business case and enhance the numbers, the financials and the key programmes that we should be putting in place. We will revise that business case based on the latest figures for growth, the economy and business, and we will demonstrate that investing in rail in the east of England will help the Government to reach their ambitious targets, not just for housing but for economic growth and regeneration.
Those projects are going to be vast. They will include the introduction of a passing loop in the vicinity of Witham town, right through the heart of the Witham constituency; the redoubling of Haughley junction; improvements to the Trowse swing bridge; re-signalling south of Chelmsford; and improvements to Liverpool Street station. Combined, those investments will increase capacity on the network and—importantly for rail users in my constituency—reduce delays. Through the new franchise to 2025, we will benefit from a new fleet of rolling stock, and the first of those trains are due to enter service very soon. We want to make sure that when they come in we do not have disruption and can get the benefits of efficiencies. Over £1 billion of new investment has been secured following the recommendations of the GEML taskforce, which were actioned by the Government. Of course, we want that infrastructure to complement new trains and maximise the benefits, as well as include those key infrastructure projects.
As the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) has said, service improvements on the Great Eastern main line can be delivered through digital railway technology, along with the long-awaited development of Beaulieu Park railway station—Chelmsford parkway, as some call it—with three or four tracks and platforms to facilitate future growth in service opportunities. MPs, councils, businesses and commuters across the region are united behind that vision for rail service across the east of England, and I hope that the Minister and the Department will continue to work with us and back us, working with friends in the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to get that vision fully funded. It is about having an integrated approach across Government to delivering improvement in our rail service and our network, which matters when it comes to wider Government funding.
The Transport Committee’s report comments on the investment process and the enhancement pipeline, which was announced last year and which the hon. Member for Nottingham South spoke about. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will talk about how those schemes can go through that pipeline so that we can be efficient in getting the right kinds of decisions.
I will touch on a few other points very quickly. One—this will also interest the hon. Member for Cambridge—is investing in rail more widely in the region that covers Stansted. Stansted is the third busiest airport by passenger numbers in the country, and the second largest by freight. It has capacity for more flights, and given the capacity issues at Heathrow, we should be encouraging more travel to other airports. Of course, connectivity through the rail link from Stansted to London and further is a major barrier to growth, and our former colleague, the right hon. Sir Alan Haselhurst—now Lord Haselhurst, following his ascension to the other place—is working on proposals to improve connectivity through the West Anglia Taskforce. I commend his work on the issue. We often talk about Crossrail 2 presenting an opportunity for connectivity in that part of the eastern region, and I would like the Minister to provide any updates he can in his concluding remarks.
I thank the Chair of the Transport Committee for the opportunity to speak today off the back of the Committee’s excellent report. I also praise the Minister for his attention to rail, obviously from an east of England point of view. I ask him to bring together all the levers of Government—not just those in his Department—to catalyse funding across other Government Departments in order to unlock economic growth and opportunity across the regions of our country, so that we can use our rail much more strategically. Rail investments have been a catalyst for economic growth.