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February Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 2:30 pm, 13th February 2020

Like colleagues across the House, I have been moved by many of the maiden speeches we have heard so far. My hon. Friend Stuart Anderson had me in tears when I watched his, and today we heard from my hon. Friend Dr Hudson, whose touching words certainly hit home—I think he did his father extremely proud today.

I also want to say a big thank you to my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie. She and I began our political journey together back in February 2017, when we both hoped one day to become Members of Parliament. I am delighted to be on the green Benches with her today. I fully back her campaign for further education and encourage Members across the House to see what she does every Friday to promote that amazing cause, and I encourage them to copy her Twitter posts to ensure that they get out into their constituencies to celebrate what an alternative to university could look like for many people.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. There is no end of matters that I could raise, although I think the news cycle might take over today. The good news for those on the Treasury Bench—I look forward to meeting the new Chancellor—is that I will limit myself to only one spending request: to improve transport in Stoke-on-Trent, Talke and Kidsgrove. The less good news, for the Treasury and the Department for Transport, is that they might find my long list of asks a bit burdensome.

Stoke-on-Trent has for decades missed out on the transport investment that other areas have seen. Together with my colleagues across north Staffordshire, I want to make sure that we do not lose out again. The Prime Minister has already boosted our confidence by agreeing that if HS2 is to go ahead at all, it must include the Handsacre link. That link is crucial to bringing HS2 services to Stoke-on-Trent, and the very thought of it has been attracting investment into the city. Now that it has been confirmed, HS2 will open up further opportunities for investment, but there will also be challenges in getting the transport system across north Staffordshire into a fit state to take full advantage of the increase in connectivity and profile that being a high-speed rail city will bring.

I confess that north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent already enjoy very good strategic transport links to the rest of the UK: the M6, A500 and A50 serve the city; the rail journey to London is as little as 1 hour and 30 minutes; and there are four international airports within an hour’s drive—and that is even before HS2 is delivered. Stoke-on-Trent is ideally located to take advantage of and contribute to national economic growth, but—and there is a big but—in order to maximise that contribution, we require major improvements to local infrastructure. We are the gatekeepers to the northern powerhouse, yet far too often Stoke-on-Trent is treated as the ugly duckling in the midlands engine.

Local transport connectivity in north Staffordshire is sadly very poor, especially at rush hour, with heavy dependency on the car. Many people struggle to get around the conurbation, which limits access to employment opportunities. Improved local public transport would support wider development in the area; unlock sites for housing and economic regeneration; and help reduce congestion and tackle air pollution.

Stoke-on-Trent has been confirmed as a recipient of investment from the transforming cities fund, but the exact scale of that investment is yet to be revealed, and I would not want the House to adjourn before I had stated the case for major investment in and around Stoke-on-Trent. The bid to the transforming cities fund is for Stoke station to become the key transport interchange for the whole north Staffordshire conurbation. The proposals are expected to reduce journey times and congestion, create new jobs and improve accessibility and connectivity. The focus is on securing a shift from private vehicles to public transport, with Stoke station as a main transport hub. That is the same model as other successful cities, but it has yet to be realised in Stoke-on-Trent because of the linear and polycentric nature of our city.

We also want to invest in the city’s existing rail infrastructure and make better use of it. The north Staffordshire line would become the major transport corridor for movement within the city. That line, also known as the Crewe to Derby line, links three existing Stoke-on-Trent stations at Longton, Stoke and Longport, together with Kidsgrove in my constituency in the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The transforming cities fund bid includes much-needed improvements to our local stations, and we are ambitious about the potential for seamless public transport from rail to bus. I must add that I have had to write a very angry letter to Network Rail, which has wasted millions of pounds of public money by not making the Access for All upgrades at Kidsgrove station. My predecessor’s predecessor had lobbied for that money, and it was given back in 2015. Network Rail’s failure to deliver those important upgrades means that people with mobility needs, and young mothers and fathers with pushchairs and prams, are now unable to access the station’s entirety, and that is a disgrace. I would like the Department for Transport to work with me to ensure that we hold Network Rail to account on such failure.

The pedestrian experience also needs attention, and I am excited about the possibilities for cycling, particularly in the context of the Prime Minister’s statement earlier this week. There is plenty of capacity for increasing use at Longport station, and if we can improve the pedestrian and cycle journey from Longport, that could boost the local visitor economy substantially. Middleport Pottery, which is again shining on our TV screens as the home of “The Great Pottery Throw Down”, should be a relatively short walk from Longport station, but there are various public spaces that need to be better connected in order to achieve the optimal route. Our ambitions for local rail go beyond enhancing the local survivors of the Beeching cuts. We want to see reversals too.

Once the transforming cities fund has been delivered, it will be even more evident that we need to deliver on the reopening of the Churnet line from Stoke to Leek. My right hon. Friend Karen Bradley has long campaigned for that, and she is joined by all three of Stoke-on-Trent’s MPs. That would mean reopening a station at Milton in my constituency, and ideally one to serve Birches Head Academy on the boundary with Stoke-on-Trent Central. Milton is a truncation of “mill town”, and just as it has sadly lost its mill, it has also lost its place on the railway map. I want to bring it back. Indeed, I would love to see Milton Junction return to the rail map so that local services could also go up towards Biddulph. That would potentially mean restoring rail services to Ford Green, Smallthorne and Chell. That is a very long-term ambition, but I did not come into politics to think small.

An ambition for the Crewe to Derby line is to see the return of a station at Chatterley for Tunstall. That would serve both our historic, traditional coalfield communities and our up-to-the-minute Ceramics Valley enterprise zone and Tunstall Arrow. Sadly, it cannot be a straightforward restoration of the old Chatterley halt, because the line was moved westwards in the 1966 deviation to allow for electrification. But there is a big gap between Kidsgrove and Longport stations, and a new Chatterley for Tunstall station would fill it, catalysing further economic regeneration.

Talking of Kidsgrove, in a little over a decade the entries and exits at Kidsgrove station have boomed, from 50,000 to more like 250,000, and it is imperative that everyone should enjoy the success.

Finally, I want to talk about buses. This could be a speech in itself, but I will restrict myself to repeating the pleas already made in the House by many hon. Friends—including my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon)—for a super-bus scheme in our fine city. Bus use in the Potteries has declined by more than 10% in the last year alone, with over 1 million fewer bus passenger journeys in 2018-19 than in 2017-18. Bus passenger journeys are now 9.3 million, down from over 15 million recorded at the start of the decade. That is while traffic congestion has worsened, with consequential breaches of the World Health Organisation’s pollution limits. New solutions are needed to make buses more attractive, so that they can viably compete with the comfort and cost-effectiveness of the car. We need more routes, better buses and bus shelters that display live information, such as those that are enjoyed in London.

Finally, Jessica Morden talked about universal credit and the six-month time limit. As the secretary for the all-party parliamentary group on universal credit, I look forward to working with Members from across the entire House to ensure that we correct what truly is a problem in that system.