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This is the first time that I have spoken on transport in this Parliament, but it is far from the first time that I have spoken on these issues over the past decade in this House. Indeed, the fact that I shall repeat many of the points that I have previously raised with other Ministers shows just how little progress there has been in delivering a reliable, affordable and integrated public transport system for people throughout the north-east, including my constituents.
We are a region with incredible potential, but our inadequate transport links hold us back. An expanded, integrated network would address so many of the challenges we face, from the economy to the environment. It would unlock job opportunities by allowing people without a car to access areas they would have struggled to get to before. It would help ward off loneliness and isolation. And it would tackle the poor air quality that is present in so many communities across our country.
Making sure that areas such as mine can benefit from a well-run, integrated system that puts passengers first should not be beyond us, but in my constituency it has been decades since we were last served by any form of passenger rail service. That means that buses are the only option for those wishing to use public transport, but those services are often unreliable and costly, and are too often run for the benefit of shareholders, not the taxpayer. In the last decade alone, several routes have been cut or altered, often on spurious grounds, usually connected to profit, with little warning for local people, leaving residents cut off from GPs, hospitals and schools.
The demand for good public transport in the north-east is there; we are the region that, outside London, has the lowest rate of car ownership in the country. We also have great economic potential; we are the only UK region to consistently deliver a trade surplus and the leading exporting region in the UK.
For years now, we have heard great rhetoric about the Government’s commitment to the north, and we have heard even more in recent months, but that has not been matched by action. For too long our region has suffered from a major imbalance in transport spending per head when compared with other English regions.
There are a number of credible and viable ways in which access to public transport could be opened up. Houghton and Sunderland South is home to a section of the Leamside line, a mothballed rail corridor running between Newcastle and Durham, passing through Fence Houses and Penshaw and then over the incredible Victoria viaduct. Nexus has identified the long-term strategic benefits of reopening the Leamside line. It would add capacity for both freight and passenger services operating at local, regional and national level. That would relieve pressure on the east coast main line, which is already at capacity and is set to face greater demands in years to come. I invite the Minister to come and see the Leamside line, to appreciate what could be achieved if we were able to reopen that important line. I would also urge the Secretary of State to look favourably on funding if any business case is put before him, in the context of the strategic outline business case.
Another long-term prospect would be the extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro to Doxford international business park in my constituency, where thousands of workers are based. There is a real desire among my constituents to make that a reality—a point I made when responding to the Government’s consultation on light rail. Ministers had hoped to respond to the consultation by the end of last year. I take the opportunity to ask the Minister when he expects the Government response to be forthcoming.
Reopening the Leamside line and extending the Metro are just two examples of how investment in rail and light rail could benefit my constituency. Doubtless we shall hear many similar cases made by Members across the House. I appreciate that what I have set out represents longer-term projects that will take time and capital investment to deliver, but there is one straightforward way that the Government could immediately address the quality of public transport in my constituency—by sorting out our failed bus network.
We have seen bus routes cut on a whim, with the absolute minimum of notice, and with no requirement to release the data on profitability that leads to those decisions. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in the north-east bus patronage among adults has continued to fall substantially in recent years. These are the consequences of deregulation in the ’80s, which, as I have argued before, has been an unmitigated disaster for constituencies like mine. There is no reason why local bus services in the north-east cannot operate on the basis of an integrated transport system with genuine smart ticketing that allows people greater flexibility in travelling.
Ministers should give us the powers we need to franchise bus services, so that local people have a greater say, and ensure that passengers and taxpayers are put ahead of the interests of bus company shareholders. Making such a change in legislation need not be difficult if the political will exists, and it would provide a much quicker solution to tackling the inadequate public transport network that we see throughout the north-east.
If all this talk of so-called levelling up is to mean anything, we need to see much more action and fewer platitudes from Ministers, and a clear demonstration that they will work with us—communities, businesses and politicians, right across the north-east—to unlock our potential and invest in our transport network.