Public Transport: Carshalton and Wallington Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

Public Transport: Carshalton and Wallington

Guy Opperman Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Guy Opperman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Guy Opperman)
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There is a sense of déjà vu for you and me, Mr Deputy Speaker, because the last debate before the House rose for Christmas featured yourself as the Deputy Speaker; the Transport Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), honourably fighting the fight on behalf of the Department for Transport; and my good self, making the case at the Dispatch Box on an Adjournment debate. It is a privilege and honour to be the last Minister to speak at the Dispatch Box before Easter.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who said at the outset that we need to wish everybody in the House who works so hard to keep us safe in this place that we cherish, love and adore a very happy Easter and a gentle rest over the Easter holidays, so that we all emerge recharged, rebooted and ready to keep the flavour of democracy alive on an ongoing basis, because that really matters. Having the opportunity to address the House, make the case for democracy and for individual constituents, and bring their concerns, hopes, fears and aspirations to this place is something we should all cherish and adore.

It is a great honour and privilege to respond to my hon. Friend. I have visited his constituency in the past; I would be delighted to visit it again, and I look forward to doing so in the next few weeks. To answer his three points at the outset before I get into the nuts and bolts of the issue, I would be delighted to work with him on the causes he has set out and delighted to visit soon.

I am also delighted to make the case that ULEZ is a blunt instrument, and we will discuss that in a bit more detail, although I assure the House that we will not spend the next two hours and seven minutes discussing it. ULEZ is a blunt instrument that needs to be taken in the context of the individual circumstances of the Londoners and outer Londoners whom it affects. It needs to take into account the impact it has on low-income and public sector workers, because the stats on that are genuinely horrifying. It is not something—with great respect—that is being dealt with sensitivity. It is not being done under the Mayor’s manifesto. I was the Minister who responded to the Bill last Friday on behalf of the Government, and I will touch on that in some detail.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues, which I want to address. The first is the issue of the Mayor and his finances because, as my hon. Friend will be aware and as the Secretary of State has put on the record in writing, the Mayor had to be bailed out by a multibillion-pound settlement due to his mismanagement of his funds. Clearly, that has had an impact on the provision of bus services, which are key. As the Minister for buses, I am passionate about buses and the growth in bus services post covid. I am alarmed and concerned to hear about the litany of bus services that have been lost in my hon. Friend’s constituency due to the actions of the Mayor.

I regret to say that I have no power whatsoever to intervene in the mayoral zone to address any of the bus losses or to nudge individual operators to make changes. I will come to rail in a second, because we have some power there. I know that my hon. Friend has worked with the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), in copious detail to address those issues. That is the reality of the mayoral situation on buses, and it is of great concern.

Only yesterday, I met my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) to have an hour-long discussion with bus operators to thrash out difficulties and try to find a way for the bus service improvement plan and bus service operators grant to address particular issues. That ability does not exist, unless the Mayor provides the right sort of assistance and prioritises the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington. On buses, regretfully I am powerless to intervene, but his constituents have the ultimate power to do so, and I urge them to do that for the reasons that he set out and that I utterly endorse. I put my backing behind Susan Hall.

I know that my hon. Friend has worked with the Rail Minister over a period of time to try to improve and enhance the rail service that his constituents sometimes have enjoyed and sometimes have not. As someone who commutes in from south London when I am here in Westminster, I have experienced some of that pain. I accept that there are ongoing difficulties, some of which have been addressed—he rightly identified the companies that have assisted him and played ball. We are at about 85% of pre-covid numbers. I assure him that the Rail Minister is happy to meet him, operators and particular cohorts of constituents and councillors to discuss potential improvements and further ongoing work that can be done.

My hon. Friend raised the important issue of the Croydon area remodelling scheme. I agree that it is clearly a massive improvement and enhancement that we should get behind. Such an investment will be a massive improvement and be of wider benefit to his constituents. On the other rail and infrastructure projects, he talked about Govia Thameslink Railway—GTR. He has worked closely with that operator on the services that it provides, particularly the busy weekend services between Carshalton and London Victoria, which are vital. He rightly made the point that timetable changes will take effect from June 2024, and services will run with eight to 10 carriages, rather than five as some did previously. I am sure that he will welcome the additional capacity for passengers using those services. We require all train operators to continually review the services they provide so that their timetables reflect changing passenger demand, carefully balancing cost, capacity and performance.

My hon. Friend raised Access for All, which he has championed repeatedly. He would love me to triumphantly pull out the Oscar-winning envelope from this Dispatch Box and confirm the campaign that he has fought for so assiduously for so long. I regret that I cannot do that today, but in time-honoured tradition I can confirm that the next announcement on extending Access for All and improving rail accessibility will be made very shortly. He has made his case repeatedly. If he has not again met the Rail Minister who oversees that issue, I will personally communicate that to him, so that he fully understands how much it matters to my hon. Friend’s constituents and how brilliantly he has made the case.

On ULEZ, there are a number of myths I want to address. We need a genuine discussion on this issue. My hon. Friend spent about five minutes of his speech on it, and I want to spend some time on it in response. The principle of having a clean air zone in the centre of a city is, I think, utterly without dispute. The Government legislated for that, and local authorities and mayors agree with it. For those of us who are right in the heart of the city in Westminster, the original congestion zone makes total sense and is fully understandable. There is an argument —it is a hard argument to make, but there is an argument—that there was authority to extend it out to the south circular and the north circular, and that that would be a wider congestion zone. But it is patently clear from reading the present Mayor of London’s manifesto—I spent rather too long reading it; an hour and a bit of my life I will never get back—that there is no argument whatever for the extension that has taken place. My hon. Friend rightly talked about the consultation and the responses to it. The best I can do is make two points.

First, take the congestion zone in Bristol, which is clearly relatively successful. It was introduced with due consideration of businesses and people living in the heart of the city, trying to keep a vibrant city going. That congestion zone is one mile by two—basically, two square miles. The London congestion zone has now gone up to approximately 600 square miles. It is 50 miles by 50 miles. The impact on the wider economy of London —park for a moment the air quality, because he rightly addressed that—is obviously massive. Everybody who lives and works in London can see that. It has had a tremendous impact on the businesses that we all want to support.

Secondly, there is a democratic deficit. When the ULEZ is extended so far out to those on the outer limits of London and those who live beyond the London boundary, they are clearly penalised in a very significant way. More particularly, the penalty falls on two groups. I take this from its own impact assessment, as I and others set out in the House on Friday. It falls on the low-income group and on public sector workers—surely the worst groups to be trying to penalise with an extra tax. Anybody who knows anything about the public sector knows it is really hard to get NHS workers, care workers and police officers in central London. I could go on.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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The Minister is absolutely right about public sector workers. I mentioned that the Royal Marsden Hospital is having to refund ULEZ charges to cancer patients. One other point we must surely consider is that something like half of all Metropolitan police officers live outside the geographical area of Greater London. No wonder people do not feel that they can come and work in the city if they have to pay £12.50 a day. Does the Minister agree that ULEZ will surely have an adverse effect on crime in London if the majority of our officers have to travel in and pay £12.50 a day to police our streets?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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My hon. Friend has brilliant eyesight, because he can see the highlighted passage I was about to read out, showing that 50% of police officers in the Metropolitan police area live outside the London boundary and commute in. The percentage for all emergency workers is probably not far off that. There is no doubt that there will be a recruitment issue in all those sectors. I have spent three and a half weeks of my life in St Thomas’ Hospital, requiring intensive care—and on not one but two occasions, because I am so accident prone. Someone may require overnight nursing care, for example, and a nurse coming into London from outside will be penalised on the day she comes in, and when she leaves her night shift she will be penalised again. She will be landed with a double whammy of a ULEZ charge—and then we are surprised that London hospitals are struggling to retain staff.

Is there evidence that ULEZ is making a dramatic difference to air quality? The evidence that has been set out in a variety of ways suggests that improvement is minimal in some respects, especially in the outer reaches. Is there an impact on the economy? Definitely: there is a negative impact. Is there an impact on public services, public sector workers and the low-income people who, according to the impact assessment, will be more affected by ULEZ expansion? There is not a shadow of a doubt that that is the case. I do not want to get too political on the last day before the Easter recess, but my hon. Friend asked what would happen in the future, and the idea that the present Mayor will not expand the impact of the ULEZ is for the birds. It is a bit like asking, “Are there moustaches in Mexico?” or “Do bears go to the toilet in the woods?” We both know that what the Mayor is proposing to do is to extend the present proposal in a variety of ways.

The key point that was made on Friday by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French), my right hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) and for Ashford (Damian Green), my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—from a sedentary position—and various colleagues from Watford was that great thought should be given to the benefits of this public policy as against the massive burdens that are being imposed. We must clearly consider why we are doing this on an ongoing basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington remains a massive champion of this issue, and I should be delighted to see the changes that he seeks. Of course, the Rail Minister will continue to work with him, and good work is being done. We want to continue to support him and his constituents. I commend him for bringing the debate to the House before Easter, and I commend his efforts on behalf of his constituents.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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On behalf of Mr Speaker and the other Deputy Speakers, I echo the words of the Minister and Elliot Colburn in wishing a very happy Easter to everyone who works here to ensure that our democracy progresses. I hope that they will get together with their families and friends, and to those who sadly cannot do that because they are providing services to the rest of us, I say a great thank you on behalf of the nation.

Question put and agreed to.