Westminster diary: Coal mine hint and transport priorities

The rail strikes have dominated most of the week, before by-election defeats for the Conservatives in Devon and West Yorkshire put questions over the Prime Minister's future at the top of the political agenda again.

There's a lot of analysis on those big national stories elsewhere, so I'll focus on some important issues that are more specific to Cumbria and the South of Scotland.

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson dropped what sounded like a big hint that the government are about to give the go-ahead to a hugely controversial new coal mine in Cumbria.

Bolton West Conservative MP Chris Green asked if the PM shared his "concerns about the ethics of holding back British industry and exporting - and magnifying - our carbon emissions overseas, all in the name of net zero?"

Mr Johnson responded: "We can all be proud of the way we have reduced CO2 emissions in this country, but plainly it makes no sense to be importing coal, particularly for metallurgical purposes, when we have our own domestic resources."

Neither mentioned the project in Whitehaven directly, but their points are in keeping with arguments long made by leading supporters of the mine about 'offshoring' emissions.

Opponents say the mine will simply increase emissions, a lot of the coal will be exported, and it won't be needed by steelmakers as they move to new production methods.

The deadline for Communities Secretary Michael Gove to decide whether to approve or block the mine is 7 July - so really not long to wait now.

Scottish Borders Conservative MP John Lamont used PMQs to push for some progress on a couple of long-discussed transport projects.

He asked: "will the Prime Minister reconfirm his government’s support for improvements to the cross-border A1 road and the feasibility study to extend the Borders Railway to Hawick and Newcastleton and on to Carlisle?"

Boris Johnson noted "an excellent piece of lobbying" and said: "the Department for Transport is working with Transport Scotland on the possible extension of the Borders Railway to Carlisle."

Funding was allocated for the feasibility study three years ago, but there's been little movement since then.

The PM continued: "On the A1, a decision is to be made later this year."

I think that refers to a recent delay to a decision over widening part of the A1 in Northumberland (with potential impacts north of the border) as the UK government considers east coast connections more broadly after receiving a major report on transport

Meanwhile, the MP for Penrith & The Border Dr Neil Hudson launched a petition this week, calling for fairer transport for young people.

For the last few years in England it's been compulsory to stay in education or training until age 18 - but the duty for councils to provide transport only runs until age 16.

The Conservative MP said young people in rural areas are being particularly penalised and "some pupils have felt that their careers are already being determined as they cannot access the courses they want to follow."

Cumbria County Council said post-16 students from low income families or who have a learning difficulty or disability can qualify for free transport, and spare seats may be available for others.

The Department for Education said: "there are currently no plans to change transport arrangements after extending the compulsory education age", but pointed to the work of councils and the 16-19 bursary which supports students from the lowest income households.

On Thursday, South Lakes MP Tim Farron said he had written to the Chancellor and Business Secretary asking them to "urgently" fix "gaps" in the energy grant scheme announced recently.

The Liberal Democrat MP said that many of his constituents who live permanently in a static home or a caravan park will not receive the £400 support payment, with the money going to the owner of their park.That's because many pay for their energy via the site owner, whose name is therefore on the bill.

The government told us: "We are working closely with consumer groups and suppliers to ensure as many people as possible can access the £400 energy bills support payment, including exploring alternative payment options for those in park homes."So it sounds like there's a decent chance they will be able to amend the system in time for October, when the grants are due to start being paid to all households.

Finally, a big moment is coming up on Tuesday, when Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is due to set out how she believes she can hold another independence referendum, legally, even without consent from the UK government.

We'll have plenty of coverage of that on our news programmes, Representing Border and online - including in next week's round-up.