National Networks National Policy Statement Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

National Networks National Policy Statement

Guy Opperman Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Guy Opperman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Guy Opperman)
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I beg to move,

That this House approves the National Policy Statement for National Networks, which was laid before this House on 6 March.

It is me again—it is déjà vu all over again. I will be brief in my opening speech. I stand here today as the Minister in the Department for Transport who is responsible for infrastructure planning and delivery, although some of my colleagues handle some of the other key development consent orders in that respect.

The national networks national policy statement, or NNNPS, provides the planning framework for determining applications for nationally significant road, rail and strategic freight interchange projects. These are schemes determined under the process set out in the Planning Act 2008. The NNNPS sets out why we need to develop these networks, and how applications for projects will be assessed. It does not set out locations where national network development will take place, neither is it a transport strategy governing wider transport policies, such as active travel. The existing NNNPS was designated in 2015, and approximately 30 road, rail and SRFI schemes have gained consent since then.

The draft NNNPS was subject to public consultation. Alongside that, the Transport Committee, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), undertook an inquiry into the draft. We have made a number of changes in response to the Committee’s work, and I want to put on the record that I am grateful to the Committee for its careful consideration of all the issues raised through both written and oral evidence. I would like to apologise on the record to the Committee, because our initial response to its report did not include a response to one of its recommendations. Today, I have laid in the House an amended version of the response, which responds to all the recommendations, including the recommendation concerning the application of the NNNPS to other consenting regimes, such as under the Transport and Works Act 1992. The NNNPS already provides guidance to applicants on that point, and we believe that this strikes the right balance.

You will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we have invested £24 billion in the country’s most important roads through the second road investment strategy, and are committed to the next five-year plan for maintaining and enhancing the network. In Network North, we have recognised the importance of local road infrastructure by providing major increases in funding for the major network programme, with some £900 million extra in the midlands and £1.4 billion extra in the north to support regional connectivity and growth.

Our railways are a vital part of the country’s transport infrastructure, and well-targeted rail investments play a crucial role in growing the economy and meeting the connectivity needs of customers and businesses. We also want to ensure that we support freight in all its forms. Freight trains carry goods worth over £30 billion per year across a range of different commodities—specifically, supporting construction and intermodal flows, which can include customers’ goods.

It is right that we provide a planning policy framework that enables us to deliver projects and investment as quickly as possible. The revised NNNPS does that, and I commend this statement to the House.

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab)
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I had anticipated a slightly longer opening speech from the Minister. Nevertheless, here we are today to debate a new national networks national policy statement, a decade after the previous statement was published in 2014. The right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) originally promised that the Government would review the NNNPS in July 2021, but here we are, nearly three years on from that promise and a decade on from the last published statement. Perhaps the Minister could explain why it took so long to get to this point.

The UK committed to reach net zero by 2050 when we signed the Paris agreement in 2015. It is not good enough that it took nine years for net zero to finally be integrated into the NNNPS. Since 2015, we have moved backwards on net zero. Just look at the Prime Minister’s delaying of the end of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans. This rowing back on net zero is not just a disaster for the planet; it will worsen the cost of living crisis for drivers, with an estimated cost to consumers of an eye-watering £13 billion in higher fuel costs as a direct result of the Prime Minister’s decision.

Then there is the mess he made of HS2. The irony and symbolism of where he made the announcement is lost on no one: a disused railway station at the end of the proposed line. Everyone recognises the impact of the decision on net zero. Even the writers of “The Thick of It” would have dismissed such a plotline as far too implausible.

Freight trains have 76% fewer emissions than the equivalent road transport capacity, but because of the Prime Minister’s chaotic decision making, half a million more lorry journeys will add to the clogging up of our roads every year by carrying freight that could have been delivered by rail. I wonder whether the Minister will respond to that point about rail freight.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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The hon. Gentleman has raised a legitimate point about HS2. Clearly the Prime Minister’s decision on 6 October was to redistribute that funding to a variety of projects, particularly in the north, but what is the Labour party policy? Is its manifesto proposal to continue with HS2 and the second leg or not?

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson
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It is a shame that the Minister did not stand up to announce that the Government had found some miraculous way of returning to the consensus. We know that the Conservatives have taken a wrecking ball to the HS2 project, and that they blew the budget, which is why they cancelled it, so we are not going to be able to revive it. After the rushing through of the fire sale of the land, the downgrading of ambition on major stations such as Euston and the reallocation of funding originally meant for HS2, which I think he referred to in his speech, there is no way we would be able to revive it.

Is it any wonder that the Transport Committee has warned us that there is still a lot of catching up to do when it comes to our climate change commitments and to ensuring that we deliver major infrastructure projects on time and to budget? The Transport Committee’s members made their concerns crystal clear when they said that

“the Government should have been proactive and reviewed the NPS upon the introduction of Net Zero targets, and should do when any changes are made to net zero target policies”.

Yet the latest national networks national policy statement still leaves gaps, notably in its admission that

“residual carbon emissions as an impact of NSIP”—

nationally significant infrastructure project—

“schemes are acceptable”.

There is a further lack of clarity over what “residual carbon emissions” means in practice, and the policy statement does not offer a process to distinguish between acceptable residual emissions and emissions that would mean carbon targets would not be met. The Transport Planning Society has even warned that the contradiction between the NNNPS and the transport decarbonisation plans is “potentially incredibly dangerous”.

We all know that our planning system is broken, with too many projects bogged down in development limbo for years on end as they wait for a decision, but the Transport Committee has warned that the gaps in this policy statement that I have just identified could lead to even more costly and time-consuming legal challenges to major projects on climate grounds. This would slow down our snail’s-pace planning system even further, and it is the taxpayer that would pay the price for the delays.

The flaws in the statement do not stop there. The Government have failed to take into account local authority-level targets and carbon budgets, to ensure that the local level impact of major development projects is taken into account. Meanwhile, Midlands Connect warns that sub-national transport bodies have also been snubbed. Many of these bodies have already developed strategic transport plans at regional level to support economic growth and reduce carbon emissions. They should not be ignored.

The National Infrastructure Planning Association has highlighted a lack of clarity in a number of areas, such as the frequency with which policy is reviewed, and the need for further detail to be published. The organisation warned that “weak links” ultimately result in

“delays to decisions on DCO applications”.

It warns that those delays to development consent orders could

“slow down the delivery of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects”.

So will the Minister tell us whether the Government are going to take the action that is needed so that Britain does not fall even further behind in the development of vital national infrastructure?

On the subject of existing delays to planning, the planning process has already become cumbersome and slow under this Government, with the time taken to grant development consent orders increasing by 65% since 2012, to more than four years. In response to the Transport Committee’s report, which flagged the planning system as a key source of delay in delivering infrastructure projects, the Government themselves even admitted that they recognised

“the need for modernisation and reform to the planning system”.

I have covered the shambolic approach to HS2, but a whole range of other major infrastructure projects that the Minister’s Department is supposedly committed to delivering have seen soaring costs and repeated delays. Years of failure to deliver rail infrastructure upgrades such as the midland main line have robbed communities of the benefits of better transport services.

The Minister mentioned his so-called Network North proposal, but I remind him that 85% of its projects are reannouncements. Much of the investment is not even in the north. In fact, some of it includes filling potholes in London—I do not think it is just north London, either.

Although the headline figure masks the fact that the money is spread over 11 years, as we established at Transport questions on Thursday, the average annual funding is equivalent to only a third of last year’s increase in the backlog of local road repairs. The consequences of these failures are not theoretical but all too real. Communities are being denied the huge economic opportunities that transport infrastructure projects can deliver, and they are currently stuck relying on creaking Victorian infrastructure.

The reality is that this Government’s track record on delivering nationally significant infrastructure projects is woeful. Today’s debate should be an opportunity to review and to learn from what has gone wrong after 14 years of delays, failures to deliver, constant policy changes and contradictions. Unlike this Government, Labour is committed to meeting our climate obligations and to getting Britain building again.

We recognise the need to address the bottlenecks on our rail network to cut congestion and emissions, which is why we have committed to a credible and transformative programme of transport infrastructure investment to link our towns and cities, particularly across the north and midlands. We also recognise the need to deliver for drivers by cutting congestion, improving the state of public transport and removing the barriers that are blocking the electric vehicle charging infrastructure roll-out.

Labour will do what this Government have failed to do by reforming the broken planning system to ensure that upgrades and progress on our transport infrastructure are actually delivered. Labour’s plan for government will accelerate infrastructure delivery, extend the reforms in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 and ensure that the action plan for the nationally significant infrastructure projects regime covers the Transport and Works Act 1992, the Highways Act 1980 and the hybrid Bill process. We will encourage active travel, support public transport and give local authorities the power to better integrate their local transport networks.

We have launched an independent review of transport infrastructure. Driven by industry experts, the review will explore how transport infrastructure can be delivered on time and on budget, learning lessons from the mess that this Government have made of major projects such as HS2. We will update all national policy statements within six months of taking office to ensure they help, not hinder, the construction of important transport infrastructure projects.

Labour is serious about learning the lessons from the staggering failure of the last 14 years. We accept that this national policy statement improves on what came before in some areas, which is why we will not oppose it today, but the Minister really should set out why he believes that the policy statement’s lack of clarity on crucial points, particularly on climate change commitments, will not worsen the delays that are already slowing our planning system to a crawl.

If the Minister cannot or will not provide those answers today, Labour will look again at the provisions when we embark on our own review of the national policy statements. As we seek to ensure that we both respect our climate change commitments and deliver on our mission to get Britain building again, Labour does not accept the managed decline of our vital infrastructure. We will not accept barriers and blockages to the upgrades we need for smoother, greener transport and to enable everyone to benefit from the enhanced economic opportunities that will follow from better transport connections.

Britain is the country that gave the world the railways. We can and should be leading the world on delivering better, greener transport infrastructure. In government, Labour will make that a reality.

--- Later in debate ---
Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I will try to address some of the points that have been raised.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), mentioned freight. He will be aware that we published the future freight strategy, which is a long-term plan, in June 2022. It was developed with industry and sets out a cross-modal approach to achieve the long-term vision of a freight and logistics sector that is economically efficient, reliant, resilient, environmentally sustainable and valued by society. I am the co-chair of the Freight Council, alongside Isabel Dedring, who is an independent industry representative. The “Generation Logistics” campaign, which we hosted in the House of Commons, and the work that the Road Haulage Association and others are doing to drive forward true change in freight should genuinely be admired.

Turning to the points raised by the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), I take his two out of three cheers as being damned by faint praise. However, at the same time, no one is pretending that the statement is perfect. It is a work in progress—we all understand that. The document runs to over 100 pages and has been available for public consultation and oral hearings, and the Transport Committee has done an assessment of it, to which the Government have responded, so with respect, it is a substantial approach to this particular issue. I endorse the comments that he made about the future plans.

The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), whom I will insult by calling a friend of mine, raised a number of points, and I will ensure that the Rail Minister responds to him. On the electrification of vehicles, I push back gently. One has to be aware that the network of publicly available charge points is rapidly increasing, with almost 57,000 installed—a 47% increase since March 2023. Clearly, more can be done—no one would dispute that—and I echo and share his desire. He makes the fair point that we need more charging points, and I take that on board. As for the Great Western delays, the Rail Minister will respond on that.

The hon. Member for Reading East and others raised the state of the roads. The allegation was made that there is no vision either to support local authorities or to address that, and that there is no long-term levelling-up plan for the north. With respect, the Prime Minister’s decision on HS2 has done a number of key things. The first, obviously, is that £8.3 billion has gone out to local authorities up and down the country, responding to the HS2 profile over 11 years. On average, that is a 30% increase in funding over the past year for every local authority—genuinely game-changing amounts of money—and the long-term funding pattern allows local authorities to invest in the future. That is something that every local authority says it wants more of.

Turning to the aspiration to support the north, one of the key decisions was to ensure that almost all of the HS2 money was spent in the north and/or the midlands as the areas affected by HS2. That is why the money is going into Network North and into the local transport fund that was announced, which has seen hundreds of millions of pounds going out to lots of different local authorities. Some local authorities have seen their transport budget increased by nine times.

The types of announcements that the Government have made also outline their direction of travel in relation to this issue. With respect, I will outline five things that the Government have done in the past 10 days alone. I was proud to announce the safer roads fund, which is spending a further £35 million in multiple locations across the country to try to enhance their road safety. Last Friday, the Secretary of State announced the ZEBRA scheme—for those who do not know, that is the zero-emission bus regional areas. There are dozens of locations up and down the country with hundreds of zero-emission buses funded and supported by this Government.

On Saturday, I announced active travel fund 4, which is worth £101 million, and saw some of the schemes that are being put in place in Darlington with the excellent Mayor, Ben Houchen, and my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson). I have also been with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) to see the £1.2 million that is going into the Medway active travel scheme. Clearly, the Automated Vehicles Bill is something that this Government have also championed.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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My hon. Friend and co-Minister, and partner in optimism—I think that is the best way of putting it—is addressing some of those points.

There was further criticism in relation to the issue of climate change. I would gently push back: clearly, there has been a lot of change in Government policy since the national networks national policy statement was designated in 2015, particularly the Government’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050. The transport decarbonisation plan, published in 2021, set out how transport’s contribution to net zero will be delivered, and the Environment Act 2021 introduced a more stringent approach to environmental protection and opportunities for enhancement of the natural environment. We have also seen the publication of road investment strategy 2 and the integrated rail plan, as well as support for rail freight, including the announcement of the rail freight growth target in December 2023. The NNNPS has been reviewed to reflect those changes in Government policy and to remain a robust framework for decision making on nationally significant infrastructure project schemes. Clearly, there are ongoing challenges in certain courts to the development of roads, and we await the decisions of those courts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) tempted me to become the Home Secretary. As we all know, the chances of that are our old friends slim and none, but I will take up with the Home Secretary the question of whether there should be a population growth assessment.

I thank all colleagues for their contributions today.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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Will the Minister give way?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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No. I genuinely commend the NNNPS, which is a mighty piece of work, to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House approves the National Policy Statement for National Networks, which was laid before this House on 6 March.