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I should like to set the scene, if I may, of a beautiful town on the south-east coast. Some very exciting new projects are taking place in Hastings. We will have a new gallery at the end of this year, and we are rebuilding our pier after recently receiving Heritage Lottery Fund money. Saga, which moved to the town in the past year, is bringing 800 new jobs. I could go on and on about the amazing positive developments that are taking place in Hastings, but we also have some major problems, and sadly, I should like to take this opportunity to draw attention to those for a few minutes.
The index of multiple deprivation is like a sin list for boroughs. There are 352 on the list and Hastings has risen steadily up it—the top is the worst. We recently found ourselves, sadly, at No. 19. There is poverty and a lack of industry in the town. There has been much debate in the town on what can be done to change that. How can we bring about the regeneration that we so desperately need? Everyone has a different view, but transport is the one matter on which we are united. How can we improve transport, and particularly rail links to London, to stimulate the regeneration that we need?
We feel cut off, like an island. Road problems compound the rail problem. From London, it takes 1 hour and 50 minutes to get to York by rail, 1 hour 55 minutes to get to Cardiff, and 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to Hastings. It is clearly absurd that such a short distance takes such a long time. Under the previous Labour Government, we had no investment in our roads or rail. We were shamefully neglected.
I am encouraged by the Government’s speedy and affirmative action in respect of electrification on the Great Western route and other railways in the north-west of England, and I dare to hope that they will also deliver improvements for the people of Hastings.
Why is the train service in Hastings quite so bad? This is an unfortunate, historical situation. We were let down when the new railway was built in the 1850s, because it competed for speed with the one being built to Brighton. We have problems with our tunnels, single lines in certain areas and we are vulnerable to points failure and slow periods during journeys. We also have electrification problems, so 12 cars cannot go south of Tunbridge.
How do we achieve the improvements that we so badly need? I am happy to say that Network Rail is working with Southeastern trains on small improvements. Incremental improvements are being made that will shave seconds, possibly minutes, off our journey times. We so hope that we will not for ever be known as the Cinderella line. Improvements are being made this year to some of the assets, including the points, and in order to rein back some of the speed restrictions.
We had horrific problems over the winter caused obviously by the snow, but what my constituents really objected to was the lack of information—they were kept waiting for hours unable to access the right information. I am told that Southeastern Trains and Network Rail are now working closely with National Rail to provide that information. However,I am ambitious for my constituency. I want to get rid of this end-of-the-line reputation, and I want us to have a much, much better line in order to achieve the necessary regeneration. I do not want just these incremental improvements; I want a first-class line, so that we can make the great leap forward that we need. We need a better quality of line, and we need that without enormous costs to the taxpayer.
The recent McNulty report leads the way. We were faced with the shocking statistic that our lines cost over 40% more than European ones. It points out how to stop above-inflation rises and it tells us about the reforms that can be instigated within our railway lines to stop this constant rising of costs and deterioration of services. My constituents have had enough of these constant inflation-busting rises. McNulty stresses value for money, and that is what we need but are not getting in Hastings. We need the reforms to stop these constant rises.
I believe we need to be ambitious with our railway service. I believe that we need investment—we cannot make these changes without investment—but I am very aware of the situation in which the Government find themselves with the terrible deficit they inherited. Where else can we look for the investment we so desperately need? We should look to a longer franchise. Those of us in Hastings were disappointed when the Secretary of State for Transport said that there was likely to be a three to six-year franchise after 2014. We should remember that the McNulty report calls for longer franchises—he makes the point that it simply makes good business sense. Sadly, we are told that the franchise proposal is because of Thameslink, but why should Hastings, which is so urgently in need of regeneration, be subject to Thameslink? We feel that we are always an afterthought—the little sister to be hushed up in the corner. I respectfully ask the Minister to stop ignoring us when it comes to deciding transport priorities. We do not want always to be a consequence of what is going on in the Thameslink project. Let us have a longer franchise—at least in double digits—and then we can get some investment in our line.
We can surely include some requirements for change to modify and adapt within the Thameslink requirements. We should be part of the consideration of Thameslink. Thameslink can go ahead, and we can have our franchise extended within certain requirements for modification if Thameslink requires it. However, having three to six-year franchises, as suggested, is like treading water with a repeatedly shoddy line. We urge the Minister to ensure that we are not let down and to reconsider the proposal. However, if the Department proceeds with a shorter franchise, at the very least we would ask it to focus on requiring an intermediary timetable change across the network for Hastings services to ensure that one of the existing trains per hour converts to a fast one.
My rail action group had a meeting with Southeastern Trains to put this proposal to it, and it responded by showing us the existing franchise to demonstrate that it had no room for manoeuvre. If we are to have the same type of shorter franchise as a stop-gap, which is not what we desire, we would ask that it be less prescriptive, so that we can at least have some fast trains a day. What we need from this investment is upgraded electrification and, eventually, double-tracking. I urge the Government to consider what could be done to help us achieve that. Perhaps there could be match funding when the new franchise is introduced. With £34 billion going into High Speed 2, perhaps we could have a small amount down in Hastings, so that the new franchise could have some investment to encourage the upgrades that we so desperately need.
I would also like to mention European funding. It sometimes feels like an elusive rabbit that keeps skipping across us in the picture. People say to us, “Have you tried European funding?” or, “What about TEN-T funding?”, but it seems to slip away from us whenever we try to reach out, or find out where it comes from or who can guide us. I would therefore be grateful for any guidance from the Minister on whether we should try to get European funding.
The franchise should be longer, but less prescriptive. My right hon. Friend Greg Clark has long campaigned for this. He has recent experience of travelling on the line—I believe at the front of the train, with the driver—and supports our efforts to secure a longer franchise.
Let me say a word about the Cannon Street to Hastings line. Every few years, it seems that we in Hastings have to fight once more to keep the service. Once more, we are being told, “Well, you may or may not get to keep it—it depends on Thameslink.” Please do not make us dependent on Thameslink. We need our Cannon Street service. We are a town that has some areas of deprivation. I hate going on about the deprivation—I would much rather extol the virtues of Hastings—but given that we have those problems, I must point out that the commuters who take the Cannon Street line are important to us because they are the higher earners. Sometimes people say, “Don’t worry about Cannon Street: if they get to Blackfriars or St Paul’s, they’ll be absolutely fine,” but I do not agree. Some 80% of the passengers who arrive at Cannon Street make their way on foot. Arriving at London Bridge or St Paul’s is entirely different. We need to keep the Cannon Street service, and we will campaign hard to do so.
My hon. Friend Gregory Barker has asked me to add his voice to this debate. He has said that the Cannon Street service is
“essential to both commuters and businesses” in his constituency, and that it
“should not be put under threat or in any way adversely affected by the Thameslink programme. Rail companies in East Sussex are already struggling to maintain a reasonable level of service due to poor investment in the track, signalling and rolling stock in the past. My constituents deserve a better deal. I seek investment to improve rail travel to make it affordable, reliable and sustainable.”
He puts it well and reinforces the arguments that I am making.
My constituents are patient, but we believe that we deserve better. We are ambitious for our town and for our regeneration. We have a rail action group, the St Leonards and Hastings Rail Improvement Programme, which is known locally as SHRIMP. SHRIMP is not known for its militancy, but we hope to change that. We will be stepping the campaign up and making our case, to make it clear that the rail links for Hastings are not incidental to our regeneration, and that we do not want to be incidental to the Thameslink programme. I would ask the Minister to consider helping us to structure a franchise to deliver a first-class line to a first-class town.
It is a pleasure to respond to the Adjournment debate this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend Amber Rudd on securing it, although sadly she has probably drawn the short straw, because I am the duty Minister—I have responsibility for shipping and roads. She does not have the mechanic with the oily rag responding to this debate. I apologise to her for that, but that is what happens on a Friday. She has been lucky in the ballot, but perhaps unlucky in many other ways. I am sure that the Minister of State would be more than happy to meet the action group and the hon. Members responsible for that part of Kent as we move forward.
My brief says how wonderful it is to live in Sussex and that part of Kent. As someone who fished on the beaches of Hastings on many occasions as a young man, I can honestly say that it is a beautiful place to visit as well. Indeed, the tourism industry is very important to that part of the world. However, we are not talking about living there; we are talking about ensuring that the economy grows, and I am very well aware of the social deprivation that still hinders growth in that part of the country.
My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the history of the line goes back a long way. The lack of investment probably started right at the outset, because the Hastings line was built in a hurry in the 1850s, and it was not built particularly well, even when connections were made with it. It was not part of a network and it meandered from village to village. It was almost a forgotten line, even when it was being built. It was the Brighton line that attracted a lot of investment. The Department is well aware of the problems that still exist on the line from Tunbridge Wells to Hastings.
My hon. Friend should not underestimate the power of the argument that she makes on behalf of her constituents. It has been heard loud and clear in the Department, and I suggest that it would not hurt if the campaign were to up the ante. The case is obvious: there are real logistical problems and they affect growth. There are also real problems with investment, and my hon. Friend mentioned the difficult financial situation that we found ourselves in when we formed the coalition a year ago.
I know that local residents and MPs would like not to have to involve Thameslink in these discussions, but I am afraid that we have to, simply because Thameslink represents a major piece of investment to which the Government are committed. It will have an effect on the income of whoever is running the franchise in that part of the world and, as the Secretary of State said in his statement, it would be difficult to go ahead with a long franchise without knowing what is going to happen to Thameslink and Crossrail. It would be foolish to do so. We have seen too many franchises issued over the years without a proper cost analysis and without any evidence base. We are conscious of the need for a sustainable, longer franchise. My hon. Friend referred to the integrated Kent franchise, which is commonly known as the IKF.
Until I started to read this brief last night, I had no idea what the IKF was, but I certainly have now. We will be looking initially at a shorter contract, until the business case has been formatted. We shall issue a much longer one once the financial situation has been addressed, and once Thameslink is up and running.
Many hon. Members come to the House and simply ask for more money. It was excellent that my hon. Friend appreciated the financial problems and asked where other money could come from. I have had more than one conversation with my right hon. Friend Greg Clark on the subject of road funding, which is in my portfolio, and he will know that match funding is very much the way forward. I will take back to the Minister of State the ideas about match funding, and I am sure that that can be discussed in the meeting that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye will be seeking with the Minister. I do not personally understand the consequences of such arrangements in rail terms, but I know that match funding represents an exciting way forward for roads.
The McNulty report looked carefully at why our railways were so much more expensive than those elsewhere in Europe. My hon. Friend rightly referred to the fact that they are 40% more expensive. We must ensure that, in providing a 21st-century service, we take out some of the costs that are squeezing prices up and making life difficult for commuters. I also know that timetables are a real issue, and we will look into that matter in relation not only to the shorter franchise but further ahead as well. Understandable concerns have been expressed about Cannon Street; my briefing refers to an historic battle. According to what I read, there should not be a carte blanche “no” to Cannon Street. That matter needs further discussion, and local commuters and MPs should be involved in that.
Network Rail is committed to making improvements, and my hon. Friend mentioned some of the smaller ones that are being made. They illustrate the investment that is taking place. They will shave off a limited amount of journey time, except of course when we experience really difficult weather conditions such as those that we saw over the Christmas period. I fully take on board what she and others have said about the communication between the rail operator, the commuters and the local community not being up to scratch at that time. The report commissioned by the Secretary of State came to that conclusion as well.
There is no way that the Department—the Secretary of State, the Minister of State or me—is going to hush anything up. My hon. Friend is doing exactly what I would do—and have done in the past on behalf of my own constituents who are on the east coast main line. Sorry, I mean the west coast main line: if we were on the east coast main line, we would be some way away from my constituency! It is right and proper to raise the issues and the concerns of constituents rather than debate only the technicalities of the case. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to do that.
It is going to be difficult for me to address EU funding in this debate. If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will arrange for the Minister of State to write to her. EU funding always seems something of an anomaly to me. I see how much money we contribute and I understand that when it comes back, it tends to go into areas of social deprivation and need. It is often perceived that the south-east does not fall into that category, yet we all know that there are deprived areas in the region. There are some in my own constituency and many more in my hon. Friend’s.
In this Adjournment debate, it is right not just to talk about how much we would like to spend and how easily it could be spent, as we do not have that sort of money available. There are obvious constraints around Charing Cross, Cannon Street and London Bridge, which has had extensive works going on, and also physical constraints—the line coming in and out of London, particularly around Guy’s hospital; the major roads around the Strand; and, not least, the great river that flows past this great Palace—which considerably affect where and how we can bring trains and lines into London.
There is an obvious alternative to an expansion of those stations—particularly the investment from Transport for London and the Mayor for the underground. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns about Thameslink and its effect in curtailing what and how quickly things could be done. I think she will have to accept that Thameslink is a major piece of infrastructure, for which London has waited for some considerable time—it has been talked about since I was a lad, growing up in this great city. The Government’s decision to go ahead was courageous. We know it will have some knock-on effects, but it is not a complete block on investment elsewhere. What it must do, probably for the first time, is lock in better services coming into London from the south.
As we go forward, it is imperative that everybody is consulted. The Government do not want consultations for the sake of having consultations, as we want the public to feel engaged with them. I am going into detailed consultations at the moment on the future of the coastguard. At some stage, I suspect I might be accused of doing a U-turn, but we said at the start that if we believe in public consultations and public involvement, we cannot be completely arrogant and come out at the other end with identical processes to what went in at the start. When it comes to the consultation on future franchises and services, it is imperative that the public—that means everybody involved, from action groups to local MPs and local authorities, and, indeed, commuters—feel that they have engaged fully with it.
My hon. Friend referred to the Cinderella line. When I first read my brief, I must admit that I at first thought, “What is this Cinderella line?” Many people have strong feelings about this and will receive no consolation from me saying that it is not a Cinderella line, but a line that has an in-built historical problem stemming from the 1850s. There are limited claims that we could put in the limited funds available. Whatever schemes go forward, the early franchise agreements—I know this was a disappointment to my hon. Friend—have to be slightly shorter than we would have liked so that they can be locked in with other contracts, particularly with Thameslink.
It was important to raise this issue. I am sorry it is happening late on a Friday afternoon when everybody has disappeared. I apologise to my hon. Friend that the Minister of State is not here. Any of my hon. Friend’s points that I have not covered will be responded to in writing, and, as I have said, I am sure that the Minister of State will be more than happy to see her and any other Members representing her part of the world, along with their delegations. I commend her for standing up for her constituents as she has this afternoon.
Question put and agreed to.