Sir Mike Penning backs calls for Government to act on local transport issues

4th June 2019

Sir Mike Penning backs calls for the Government to act to solve rail and air transport issues affecting Hertfordshire.

As a fellow Hertfordshire MP, how could I not be here this evening to support my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami)? He has not been in the House for long, but he has picked up on some of the crucial issues that have blighted my constituents’ lives for many years. I have lost count of the number of debates and meetings I have had about Luton airport, and every single thing that he said about the airport is accurate.

My hon. Friend talked about pain and gain. Luton Borough Council is the relevant planning authority, owns the airport and gets the money, but none of the take-offs or landings occur over Luton, or even over Bedfordshire. Depending on the wind, the majority of planes fly over Stevenage, Hitchin and Harpenden and the rural northern part of my constituency of Hemel Hempstead. I have had meetings with the airport’s operators—the previous ones and the current ones—and they say, “We don’t have radio beacons anymore. We’ve got GPS tracking,” and I say, “I hate to say this, gentlemen, but you are the important managers who run this airport. I was standing in the village of Caddington, which is just about in my constituency, and I could have shook hands with the pilot of the plane that flew over. You are telling me that that plane wasn’t there and that it was another 500 yards away.” The residents say to me, “Look, Mike, this is what we have to put up with.”

The airport has been there a long time—it was an RAF airfield during the second world war—but there has been an increase in flights, particularly at night, with low take-offs. I have talked to pilots, many of whom work at Luton airport and live in my constituency or that of my hon. Friend, and have said to them in private, “Come on. Why don’t the planes climb faster when they come off the plateau?” If they climbed faster, the lives of my constituents and my hon. Friend’s would not be blighted so much. The answer, I am afraid, is money. The faster the planes climb, the more fuel they burn. The simple fact is that the operators, particularly the low-cost airlines, are trying to make as much money as they can, and does Luton Borough Council give a monkey’s about our constituents? No, it does not, because it is raking in the money. That is where the problem lies. I am pleased that some of the planning will now be called in and that the Planning Inspectorate will look at it, but it has taken nearly 10 years to get to this situation, and the legal authority for Luton airport is Luton Borough Council.

I will not repeat everything that my hon. Friend said about the airport, but am I a hypocrite—have I flown from Luton airport? Yes, I have on occasion. It is very convenient for my constituents, some of whom work there, so the economic gain is obvious, but we have to balance that against my constituents’ quality of life. If I stand in some of the villages in the rural parts of my constituency, I can smell something that smells like paraffin, and it is aviation fuel. They tell me that that they put bits and bobs out there in the woods, but there is no mitigation out there at all, particularly when it comes to noise, yet that was part of the original plan.

I am so pleased that we have some time to talk about more areas of concern in my constituency, which shares many of the issues that affect my hon. Friend’s constituency. Turning to rail, his constituency is served by Thameslink and the east coast main line, but I am on the other side, so I have the west coast main line, and we have a fairly new operator in West Midlands Railway. Until a couple of weeks ago, I just got complaints from people saying, “I couldn’t get a seat. It is not fair,” and I feel for them, because they pay the same money as someone who has a seat. If someone gets on at Berkhamsted, they can get a seat, but someone getting on at Hemel does not get one.

However, I also have two other stations, Apsley and Kings Langley, that are commuter stations for London. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been inundated with letters and emails from constituents saying, “All of a sudden, while I’m waiting at Euston to get the train home, they’ve decided that the train will no longer stop at Apsley, and Hemel will be the first stop, or the train will stop at Watford, but then doesn’t stop until Milton Keynes.” These are people who commute every day and pay a huge amount of money for season tickets. Their cars are often at those stations because they live in more rural parts, so they are trapped. I have written to the rail operator, so it will not be surprised that I am standing here and saying this: it is simply not fair.

The best thing my hon. Friend said to the Minister is that the Government need to lean in on this. The Government represent the British public, and they give out the franchises. This is a relatively new franchise. I had problems with overcrowding under the previous operator, and we had comments about late trains, but now the trains are not even stopping at the stations where they are supposed to stop.

This morning, my member of staff said that the train turned up with six carriages, not eight, so nobody got a seat from Hemel onwards, even though the train stopped. These passengers pay the same money for the service. My Government have given the franchise to an operator that, to me, is in breach of it. Yes, passengers can get compensation, but they do not want that. They just want to go to work. They want to come home on time to see their little ‘uns go to bed, and do all the sorts of things that families want to do—they might even want to go to the pub and have a drink on the way home. They are paying for a service, and it is simply not happening.

I have two issues for the Minister, and I completely agree about Luton. It is not just the east coast main line and Thameslink; it is on our side, too.

I drove down this morning on the M1, which is often the lifeblood of commuters in our constituencies because many of them do not have the confidence to use the railway. The bus service is basically full, even from Hemel. For various different reasons, people need to drive. As I drove on to the M1 at junction 8, I might as well have been driving through a rubbish tip. I do not know what Highways England is doing, but it has a responsibility—and I know the public should not throw litter out of their windows. My local authority is desperate to encourage businesses, new people and new companies to come to Hemel. Even the downgraded M10, which is now the A414 and which Highways England still has responsibility for maintaining and looking after, is strewn with litter as it comes into my constituency. The next thing we know, Highways England comes to cut the grass and all the litter gets chopped up.

That sounds trivial, but Hertfordshire is a beautiful county. I have a new town. I have 45,000 homes in my constituency, of which only about 7,000 are in my villages. I have the Chilterns, which go right up through to the Bedfordshire border. It is stunningly beautiful, only to be blighted by people, organisations and agencies of Government not doing their job. I am sure Highways England will say it has a programme and that it collects the litter every month or two, and I have written to it loads of times over the years, but it has to be named and shamed. It is an absolute mess.

It is not just litter. Street furniture was dumped at junction 8 when Highways England did some kind of maintenance years and years ago. I have written to Highways England over and again, and I am sure it thinks it can just ignore a Member of Parliament. Well, in this case it cannot because I am naming and shaming it from the Floor of the House.

It is not all doom and gloom. In Hemel Hempstead we have the lowest unemployment since the new town was built. The unemployment rate is about 1.5%, which means there are more jobs in my town than there are unemployed people available to take them. That means there is a lot of commuting into Hemel.

Junction 8 was redesigned in about 2005, and we were thrilled when it happened, but I have 5,000 houses being built around the junction—the land is owned by the Crown Estate—and I have 20,000 new homes coming over the next 20 years. Interestingly, my constituency contained Redbourn many years ago but, as we have grown, Redbourn has commuted to another constituency.

We are growing and people are coming into the town, and junction 8 cannot cope. I know there are draft plans on the statute book, as I was a Roads Minister many years ago. Roads Ministers have plans for future road improvements and roadworks put in front of them by their people, and they consider things such as the business case ratio—if we spend £1 million on that, will we get back £5 million or £6 million? Plans are often rejected because the BCR is low. I also know full well that every now and again the Treasury will say, “Hold on a second, we’ve got quite a lot of money. Tell us about projects that are on the stocks.” One project that needs to be on the stocks—and I understand it is being worked on at the moment—is a junction 8 improvement scheme. It is now getting dangerous, because traffic is backing up at the traffic lights as we come into Hemel on to the M1 slip—and what was the M10 slip. That is unacceptable.

The success of the town means that we are growing. One of my biggest bugbears is that if you drive round the M25 or down the M1, you will see signs 20 or 30 miles away for Watford. But Watford is not the largest town in Hertfordshire, Hemel Hempstead is. You have to almost bump into Hemel before you see a road sign for it. There is a fixation in our part of the world with Watford. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and I have argued and campaigned on a new hospital for our constituents, but the news today is that they are going to chuck £350 million into the centre of Watford and the Victorian hospital there.

The Highways Agency shares the fixation. You have to be at the junction with the A41 before you see a signpost saying “Hemel Hempstead”, even though we are the largest town in Hertfordshire. I cannot allow us to continue to be the forgotten town in Hertfordshire. We are the largest, the fastest growing and, at the moment, the most dynamic town, partly because of the terrible explosions that happened in 2005. Most of my town was damaged by the Buncefield explosions, and my council has been dynamic in rebuilding my town and bringing new businesses in. That brings me back to the point that both my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made about infrastructure. The public have to have trust in us to deliver the infrastructure so that business can prosper and improve the quality of life in my constituency and Hertfordshire.

We have an interesting problem. Both the east coast main line and the west coast main line have major problems at the moment, with two separate and completely different franchises. Luton airport blights my constituency and my hon. Friend’s, and if the other hon. Members for the area were here, they would be banging on about it, because that is exactly what happened in the debate in Westminster Hall. The problem extends to the small stuff, like the fact that the litter is not picked up off the motorways as often as needed. The grass grows and covers it up, but if we want an environment that we all want to live in it needs to be done.

The Government have to lean in—that is a fantastic way to describe what we expect from the Minister, and it is what I hope I did when I was the Minister at the Dispatch Box in 2010, in an Adjournment debate that should have lasted 15 minutes and was an hour and a half. The reason this matters is that people want to have trust in this place—we were talking about that in the previous debate. People want to know that their views—the emails from Mary, John, Peter or whoever—are heard, and it is not just a letter to the different rail operators or to the Minister: it is the Minister standing at the Dispatch Box and saying that he or she will do something about it. That is what we would expect.

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