I am grateful to have secured this timely debate. It seems all the more timely given yesterday's statement on public transport investment by the Secretary of State for Transport. I realise the irony of using words such as timely and public transport in the same breath. However, my intention is serious. I want to make a strong case for a much earlier decision to be made on the siting of a station or halt at the Eastfields level crossing in my constituency. That decision appeared to have been taken, with the station due to open in 2004, but the idea has now been shelved indefinitely.
I am grateful to the Minister for attending to answer the debate. I hope that he can offer some hope to my constituents that they may yet see the opening of the station that they have been waiting for. He may want to make other comments about the future of public transport in less affluent areas such as the Eastfields area of Mitcham, which are disconnected from transport systems enjoyed in much more affluent areas.
I hope that the Minister will agree that the proposal for a station at Eastfields must be treated as a priority by the Strategic Rail Authority, and I urge him to use his good offices to persuade the SRA to bring Eastfields station back up the agenda and to make an early decision.
Eastfields, on the borders of Longthornton, Pollards Hill and Figges Marsh wards in the Mitcham area, has a high-density residential population as well as three schools. It has one of the largest council estates in my constituency, surrounded by streets of typical suburban semis dating from the inter-war years. It also has the two largest derelict industrial sites in the borough.
Eastfields has suffered in recent decades from the sharp rise in antisocial scourges such as graffiti, vandalism, fly tipping and abandoned cars, as well as a decline in close-knit communities and a lack of local facilities. A survey that I carried out in the area last summer, to which hundreds of local residents responded, clearly showed that people desperately want to see more facilities in their area and better transport links. Indeed, almost everyone who responded to my questionnaire said that they wanted better rail links, including a station at Eastfields and access to the Croydon to Wimbledon tram.
There can be no question but that Eastfields has suffered from not having a direct railway link, even though the construction of a station or halt at the level crossing would be straightforward. As such, it has been mooted for many years. Merton borough council is especially keen to develop the station, which would be on the line between Victoria and Mitcham junction, and would open up the area for travel to central London and rail links in Croydon.
The wards surrounding the Eastfields area are among the most deprived in the borough of Merton. It is telling that the seven most deprived wards in Merton are in my constituency, which proves my long-held opinion that Mitcham and Morden has consistently lost out to wealthier places when funds are shared out for public transport, education, health and regeneration projects. I wanted to become a Labour Member of this House to turn over that inequality, and I am here today to speak about the needs of my constituents.
I understand that, in the mapping carried out as part of Merton's neighbourhood renewal project, all the evidence showed that communities in the area that would benefit from a station at Eastfields suffered disproportionately from income deprivation, child poverty, low levels of education and attainment, poor access to health and social care, crime and disorder and low access to public transport for employment. The communities that would benefit from the station include those disadvantaged in many other respects, including elderly people as well as significant concentrations of people from ethnic minorities. As the Minister will be aware, those from ethnic minorities experience disproportionate levels of unemployment and isolation, which adversely affect their opportunities and life chances. Too many people in the eastern part of Merton share such disadvantages.
The problem is much more than the lack of a station—a transport inequality. It concerns financial inequality, health inequality, inequality in education and—plain and simple—social inequality. Eastfields school will increase its intake from 840 to 1,200 pupils per year from 2003. The infrastructure work associated with that, including new paths to and from a possible Eastfields station, is part of the planning conditions for the school's developments. As such, it will be in any plans for Eastfields station.
The proposed location is along one of the longest stretches of railway line in London without a railway station. Elderly residents of the area say that they have been promised a station there since around 1930. It is even obvious to me that the level crossing was constructed because the intention was to build a station to serve the new suburban development. However, that has never happened. People living in the Eastfields area of east Mitcham have some of the poorest access to public transport in the borough. The new station would improve access to jobs and other opportunities for residents in an area of, as I have shown, high deprivation.
The council has always been keen for there to be a station on the site, and has already modified the alignment of the adjacent Grove road to provide a drop-off point for the new station. The council's present proposals have been in existence since the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, Merton pursued the proposal with more vigour, based on the Government's policy of putting more emphasis on rail improvements. In late 1999, it commissioned Peter Brett Associates, a firm of consulting engineers with expertise in transport planning and traffic engineering, to undertake a demand and engineering feasibility study on a new station at Eastfields. The report concluded that it was feasible to construct a station. The passenger forecast and financial appraisal strongly suggested that the station would be commercially viable, and predicted that some 10,000 people would use the new station each week.
The train operating companies, Connex and Thameslink, said that services using Mitcham junction could call at the proposed station. Railtrack's 2000 network management statement for Great Britain contained an option to develop a new station at Eastfields in 2006 with Connex, the then incumbent train operator.
Merton council recently informed me that the Strategic Rail Authority had announced its intention to reduce the length of the South Central franchise from 20 to seven years, with the SRA handling major infrastructure investment and upgrading. That has derailed plans for a station at Eastfields, causing huge disappointment to my constituents. The council made representations to the SRA in October, asking that a station be included in the new South Central franchise. It awaits the SRA response. There are two possible stances for the SRA to take: positive, in which case the council would look to joint fund further development work; or negative, in which case the council would need to lobby more strongly. My point in securing today's debate is that the council should not have to lobby more strongly. The needs of my constituents are clear: they need and want an Eastfields station.
In my correspondence on the issue, I have been fobbed off with opaque letters. One letter from James Watson, assistant director of parliamentary and public communications at the SRA, stated:
"the Eastfields proposal was a commitment in the original Heads of Terms—signed in October 2000—for the proposed 20 year franchise. It was not envisaged at that time that the proposal would be progressed before 2008 and 9. As you are aware, we are now negotiating a shorter franchise of up to seven years and no infrastructure works will be taken forward under the replacement franchise. The SRA will reappraise the package of infrastructure proposals from the former proposition and will act as sponsor in taking elements forward. With our other priorities, it will take some time to consider and decide how to proceed."
Eastfields station has been under consideration since about 1930, and I hope that the SRA will not take another 70 years to reach a conclusion.
I can do no more than to quote the eloquent words of my constituent, Mr. Graham Barker of Edgehill road in Mitcham. He wrote:
"I feel that getting into town is a mission as there is no direct rail link, underground, tram or bus that serves the city directly from this area of Mitcham . . . I'm sure I speak for the majority of local residents when I say that we really do need the station built at Eastfields without further delay."
I conclude by asking the Minister to look into the situation with a view to helping to expedite the creation of a station at Eastfields. I ask him to meet me and representatives of Merton council—and perhaps the SRA, if it can find time among its priorities—to discuss the future of the project. Make no mistake: the project must have a future. It is a future that my constituents are depending on and have been half-promised, and it will go a long way to restoring their faith in our transport system. 12.40 pm