I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement. Once again, we see the government taking its ideas from the Labour Party, adopting much of our language but falling a very long way short on the substance. This is a government that is unwilling to make the scale of investment needed to revive the parts of our country that have been decimated by successive Conservative governments. And it’s a government that has proved unable to manage infrastructure projects properly and incapable to keep a lid on costs.
Today’s piecemeal announcements don’t add up to a serious plan to rebalance the economy or tackle the climate emergency. They don’t even come close to repairing the damage done by a decade of Conservative rule. The Prime Minister laments our inadequate infrastructure, yet it’s his party that has been starving the country of investment for the last 10 years resulting in the worst regional inequality in Europe. Yet today the Prime Minister is selling his announcements as a prize for parts of the Midlands and the North. I tell him: people in those regions, to whom he promised so much in the general election, are going to be sorely disappointed.
Take HS2. The Labour Party supports HS2 as a means to boost regional economies and slash climate emissions. It is essential for boosting rail capacity and freeing up other lines. But we don’t see why the government should get a slap on the back for announcing it is going ahead. After all, it’s only because of the abject failure of successive Conservative governments to keep on top of the costs that the project’s future was in any doubt.
Today’s proposed boardroom shakeup comes far too late to avoid the public having to fork out tens of billions of pounds more than was forecast. This has been a tale of gross Conservative incompetence. The leaked Oakervee Review is correct to say that HS2 must be fully integrated as part of a modern railway system. It must extend to our great northern cities, linking up with Northern Powerhouse Rail and eventually to Scotland to end the need for domestic flights. So we are concerned that the links to Manchester and Leeds are now under review and could reportedly be downgraded.
HS2 must be developed with more sensitivity to local communities and the environment, particularly regarding the impact it will have on woodlands. And if it is to have public support the fares on HS2 must be affordable. Can the Prime Minister tell us where the trains will be built? Will those jobs and training be in this country? What about other parts of the country, like the far South West for example? When will the Prime Minister match the £2.5 billion commitment to upgrade the Great Western Mainline on our only train line into the South West?
We believe the case is now unanswerable that our railways should be publicly owned and run to improve the service and cut fares by 33 per cent. Does the Prime Minister recognise that too many people are priced off the railways?
The average commuter is now paying £3,067 for their season ticket – £873 more than when the Conservatives came to power in 2010. Why won’t the Prime Minister cut the cost of travelling? Why should people in Britain have to put up with so much more expensive fares than any other comparable country? I remember when I first raised buses at Prime Minister’s questions and was ridiculed in some quarters of the press. From the look of the front pages today those same quarters now regard the focus on buses as a political masterstroke. But in reality, what the government has said today about bus services is woeful. They’ve cherry picked policies from the Labour manifesto but underfunded them. This doesn’t make up for the deep cuts since 2010: funding for bus services has fallen by £645 million a year in real terms since 2010. 3,300 routes have been cut or withdrawn, and fares have soared at two and a half times average wages.
It’s councils that help keep bus routes open. We need long term funding for our councils that have suffered such severe cuts and now face a further £8 billion black hole over this parliament. And the government is still refusing to give all councils the powers to improve local bus services and the option of public ownership.
Underinvestment by the Conservatives has created problems that they are forced to acknowledge, but they simply aren’t serious about fixing them. Regional inequality is not going to be solved by 10 free ports. Isn’t this gimmick really just creating storage spaces for the super-rich to dodge taxes and launder money?
The Prime Minister is clearly fond of announcing big shiny projects, like the scheme to build a bridge over the Irish Sea. Why not go the whole hog and make it a garden bridge connected to an airport in the sea – it stands as much chance of actually being built as those projects did? Or why not make it a cable car between Scotland and Northern Ireland or better still a giant zip wire. The Prime Minister can be the first to try it out. The saddest thing about today’s announcement is the high likelihood that so much of it won’t be delivered – with the Prime Minister demanding 5% cuts in the very departments that are supposed to carry them out.
I fear that those communities that desperately need investment and new infrastructure are going to be let down when today’s headlines become yesterday’s news, and they find nothing has changed.