Transport Accessibility: Bolton West

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:41 pm on 20 June 2023.

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Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:41, 20 June 2023

My hon. Friend is right about the seismic shift in electrification. I cannot quote the exact number off the top of my head, but I will write to him with that. We are talking about a magnitude of 10, 20, or 30 times what happened under the last Labour Government. That shows a real commitment to transport in this country, and to faster, more reliable transport. Electric trains are also lighter, which reduces wear and tear on the network because they do not have to drag a full diesel engine. There are all sorts of benefits to electrification.

However, it is not just electrification. We have put more than £1 billion into Greater Manchester through the city region sustainable transport settlement over five years. Most areas of local government love the prospect of a five-year plan, but we have delivered it. We have delivered it because we need that long-term vision, and we want to back that long-term thinking for Greater Manchester, to ensure that it can properly level up. There are also local public transport and active travel networks. On top of that, we have invested £94.8 million to support the implementation of Greater Manchester’s bus service improvement plan, and another £35.7 million for the zero-emission bus network.

Just in the past fortnight, the Secretary of State and I signed off an additional £18 million in extraordinary funding for Greater Manchester, to help maintain local transport services until the end of 2024. Two weeks before that we announced a further £72.3 million infrastructure package for rail services in Greater Manchester and the north-west, with upgrades to Manchester Victoria, and a third platform being built at Salford Crescent. That will help to ease those bottlenecks into Manchester, and particularly on the Manchester to Bolton corridor that my hon. Friend will know well. Those works support future service improvements to a range of destinations across, and not just into, Greater Manchester and beyond, including the constituency of my hon. Friend. That forms part of much wider plans to transform rail services in the area and across the north of England, including the trans-Pennine route upgrade and electrification of the Wigan to Bolton route that my hon. Friend mentioned. All those schemes build on in excess of £1 billion investment completed in 2019, which upgraded and electrified many railway lines across the north-west, and introduced that crucial new fleet of trains for Northern and the TransPennine Express for which we had waited so long.

Let me turn to the specifics of the electrification on the Wigan to Bolton line, which my hon. Friend mentioned. In September 2021, the Government invested £78 million to electrify the railway lines between Bolton and Wigan by the middle of this decade. That vital project will enable the Bolton to Manchester corridor, which is one of the busiest rail routes in the area, to host longer electric trains with a greater seating capacity—that is often a concern mentioned by our constituents up and down the country, particularly at peak hours. The work will electrify 13 miles of track and lengthen platforms for six-car capacity at Westhoughton, Hindley and Ince stations. Line closures have been happening since January, delivering the early works, including replacement of bridges. Indeed, as I speak the new Ladies Lane concrete bridge spans over Hindley station are being readied for installation this weekend. Project plans to ensure delivery at the earliest opportunity are in progress so that passenger benefits can be realised swiftly.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to note that in December 2022 the timetable successfully implemented a number of changes developed through the Manchester taskforce, to improve on the performance levels experienced in 2018 and 2019 when delays marred a significant number of journeys. The Bolton corridor saw an increase in train lengths to provide sufficient capacity to meet demand, a standardised timetable pattern and the re-routing of the Barrow-Windermere airport service via the Bolton corridor. The Manchester taskforce is currently looking at the next stage of service development to maximise the benefits of the Wigan-Bolton and Victoria-Stalybridge electrification schemes and the recently announced improvements around Manchester. That is more of those tentacles spreading out, as my hon. Friend mentioned.

My hon. Friend spoke extensively about buses in his speech. Given that I am the local transport and roads Minister, it is one of my favourite forms of transport. Not only do I look after it directly, but it also uses roads, which are the other part of my brief, so buses are particularly important to me. I echo his comments. The Government know how important local bus services are to ensuring communities can stay connected and people can access vital local services, particularly many of the elderly, who for a variety of reasons may no longer be able to use their own transport. That is why we have invested more than £3.5 billion in buses since March 2020 to keep services running in the face of plummeting levels of patronage during the pandemic and to drive long-term improvements to bus services up and down the country. That includes our recently announced package of long-term support of £300 million over the next two years to provide the long-term certainty that the sector requires to deliver sustainable bus networks that better reflect the needs of those who rely on these vital services every day.

Part of that funding was for the measures to ensure we have cheaper bus fares with the £2 cap on single fares from 1 January, which is currently available on more than 5,000 routes across England outside London, including ones from my hon. Friend’s constituency out to other parts of the country. Sometimes our Metro Mayors take full credit for the bus service support locally, but it is only right that my hon. Friend takes some of the credit, because it is only his votes in this place that have allowed us to deliver that money for the Mayor of Greater Manchester. It is important that we recognise that.

The measure to cap fares is helping to encourage more people to use buses and is saving passengers money during what everyone in the House acknowledges are difficult economic times. That is why we recently announced that the scheme will be extended until 31 October this year, with a further £2.50 fare cap all the way through to 30 November 2024. The funding we have provided over the past three years is the largest Government investment in buses for a generation.

In the past three years alone, Greater Manchester has received around £135 million from this Government purely in pandemic-related support to keep the buses running. That is in addition to the £95 million to deliver Greater Manchester’s local bus service improvement plan and almost £36 million to support the roll-out of zero-emission buses in Greater Manchester. We have stepped up to support Greater Manchester’s local transport network as it implements the franchising of bus services and delivers the Bee Network. Giving local transport authorities greater control over the provision of bus services in their area, either through an enhanced partnership or through franchising, is a key part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. For areas that decide to take on franchising, that means they are taking on the farebox risk, so they need to ensure that their plans are right, and they will rightly be held accountable by the public for the decisions they take.

We are clear that franchised services must deliver a more comprehensive service for passengers, so I am pleased that my hon. Friend’s constituents will be some of the first to benefit from the newly franchised services in Bolton and Wigan when they commence this September.

My hon. Friend raised the workplace parking levy. On local charging, I am aware of the attempts in 2008 by the Greater Manchester authority to introduce a congestion charge as part of a bid to the then Government’s transport innovation fund. That was rejected by a local referendum, as my hon. Friend mentioned, and has not been resurrected since. Any consideration of a workplace parking levy would be for local authorities to promote and is a matter for local judgment and debate.

However, workplace parking levy schemes cannot be implemented without formal approval from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who will consider in full the merits of any proposals and listen to hard-working local MPs from across the Greater Manchester area. I recognise that a workplace parking levy scheme may have wider impacts on local residents and businesses. We would expect the local authority to explain those impacts in full to the Secretary of State as part of any proposal, along with any mitigations proposed to the negative impacts where a local authority has concluded that there is no feasible alternative to such a levy.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the Mayor’s plan for a clean air zone. Greater Manchester local authorities provided revised air quality proposals on 1 July last year. We have written requesting further evidence from the Greater Manchester authorities to enable us to consider their plans further. The Government have already allocated nearly £170 million to Greater Manchester to help reduce nitrogen dioxide levels. That is on top of the money we put into the zero-emission bus plan and into the city region sustainable transport settlement. Some of the comments that he made were particularly important. We should be providing that positive choice of a public transport alterative to people and not trying to coerce them into doing things. That is what is most important and that is what the Government have stood behind with more than £1 billion put in through a five-year package. I urge local government across the country, including in Greater Manchester, to think about the message that it is sending to people when it proposes some of these plans.

I turn to the important issue of accessibility to transport. There are more than 14 million disabled people in the UK—a fifth of the country—and that number is set to rise further as the population grows and people develop more issues in their old age. Today, disabled people make fewer journeys than non-disabled people and are significantly less likely to be employed. Transport can act as a powerful enabler, connecting people with places and unlocking access to education and employment, but it can do that only if it is designed and provided with disabled people in mind.

It is vital that the transport services we rely on can be used easily and confidently by everybody. That is at the core of the Government’s inclusive transport strategy, published in 2018, and it is just as relevant today as when it was first released. The strategy outlines a number of commitments, and the progress that we are making to address them will support disabled people across Bolton West to make the journeys that are important to them, as it will for millions of disabled people across the country. That will also provide broader benefits for the rest of the travelling public.

For example, in May—just last month—Parliament approved the Public Service Vehicles (Accessible Information) Regulations 2023, which I took through Committee. They will require the provision of audible and visible information on board local bus and coach services in Britain, so bus users in Bolton should be able to travel with as much confidence as those in other parts of the country. That is a small but important part of levelling up for many people in the country.

We also continue to invest in the accessibility of our railway stations. I am pleased to say that, as my hon. Friend said in his speech, a new lift will be installed later this year at Daisy Hill to provide a step-free route between the station entrance, ticketing facilities and platforms. In March, we launched the inclusive transport leaders scheme, inviting transport operators from across the country to share their knowledge of improving service accessibility and to celebrate their progress in supporting the creation of an inclusive transport system. Those are just three examples of how the Government are levelling up accessibility across our country, including in Bolton West.

In 2020, we launched the “It’s everyone’s journey” campaign, encouraging all passengers to travel with a little more awareness of each other’s needs, and in so doing seeking to increase disabled people’s confidence to travel. Last year, we supported the Bill introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright that aimed to eliminate discrimination against all disabled taxi and private hire vehicle users. Later this year, we will publish updated best practice guidance for local licensing authorities, including strengthened recommendations on providing an inclusive service.

On buses, local authorities entering into partnership arrangements with their local bus operators are required to actively reflect the needs of their disabled passengers in their plans, and new bus charters should ensure a shared understanding of the rights of all bus users to access services. So, across the piece, whether on private hire vehicles and taxis, on our buses or on our rail network, the Government are at the forefront of ensuring that accessible public transport options are available to everybody.

Greater Manchester now faces a significant opportunity as it prepares to franchise bus services later this year, to redefine what an accessible transport system means and to ensure that services, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, genuinely reflect the needs of local people and passengers. We rightly seek improvements in accessibility at a national level, but I am keenly aware that inaccessibility is deeply individual and a localised experience. It is about the buses, taxis and trains that disabled people take every day, and the extent to which they are respected as individuals and their needs anticipated.

I am clear that together as a Government, working with transport authorities and operators and the mayoral combined authorities, we must strive to listen to passengers, whatever their needs are. We must seek to improve transport provision so that it truly works for everyone, every day.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.