I beg to move,
That this House
has considered rail services in North Staffordshire.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I welcome the Minister back to the Department for Transport. It is fantastic to see him there again, and I thank him for meeting me earlier in the week.
I have called this debate on rail services in north Staffordshire because the issue is of particular concern in the local area. The nub of that concern is that, having once enjoyed one of the best rail networks in the world, north Staffordshire now has services that are too few and often very far between.
I will, however, set out how north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent are on the up. There are many opportunities for sustainably improving rail services across the area. All stakeholders must grasp those opportunities if we are to maximise fully the benefits of the vast taxpayer investment in High Speed 2.
I am not limiting this debate to tinkering with the day-to-day services we currently have, but I make no apology for focusing on services to and through my constituency, as an exemplar of the wider state of services in the north of the county. Strategic rail service improvements are needed both in and around Stoke-on-Trent. If realised, they will maximise opportunities for regeneration, freight expansion and serious productivity gains across north Staffordshire, allowing people to get around more easily and access the broader range of skilled opportunities we are seeing across the county.
Thanks to the Government’s industrial strategy, we are planning for a sector deal for ceramics, which can include a UK centre for ceramics research that will secure global Britain’s leadership in new-generation components. That includes high-tech automotive, aerospace, defence and digital industries, medical devices and implants, and renewable energy technology.
Our transport strategy needs to keep up with our economic ambitions. It is not just about getting people and supplies into and around Stoke-on-Trent; it is about getting much-needed and demanded goods out. For example, rail improvements can unlock fast and efficient supplies for the Government’s house building commitments. Our manufacturers of bricks, tiles, and household ceramics are the best in the world.
Looking to the future, we can learn much from our past. A century ago, north Staffordshire had one of the most comprehensive rail networks in the country, alongside one of the largest urban tram networks. Affectionately known as The Knotty, after the Staffordshire knot, it included the loop line, which was immortalised in the literature of Arnold Bennett.
Sadly, our local network emerged from the horror of war into the disasters of nationalisation. Like most parts of the country, north Staffordshire was hit by the post-war industrial decline, and those of our stations that did not fall during the war fell to the Beeching axe and its legacy. Indeed, Fenton and Fenton Manor in my constituency were already closed before Beeching began his report. Trentham, Meir and Normacot were lost as a direct result of it. Today, the only station to remain open in my constituency is Longton.
Unlike most other parts of the country, north Staffordshire has not seen any reversals of these cuts. Indeed, in May 2004, further stations closed at Wedgwood and Barlaston, though allegedly, 14 years later, these are still only temporarily closed. They are, I believe, the only stations nationally on the definitive map that do not have any services stopping. That is despite seeing significant new housing growth in the area and being sat next to the world-renowned tourist destination that is World of Wedgwood. At Etruria, the so-called Strategic Rail Authority got rid of the station altogether, crushing any suggestion that it might be reopened to serve constituents travelling from stations such as Longton to Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme.
These days, fortunately, Stoke-on-Trent is on the up. It is a city enjoying a modern industrial revolution. It is now one of the fastest growing and best places to start a new business in the UK. Traditional industries have been reborn, with some of our key ceramics manufacturers growing by more than 50% over the past few years. We are more than just ceramics; manufacturing more widely is booming in the city, making up a significant share of the economy. There are also significant advances in high-tech, digital and research. There is an increasing vibrancy in the wider area, with two universities—Keele and Staffordshire—both growing, one based right outside Stoke-on-Trent station. The city is increasingly a hub for logistics operations, and our industrial heritage has catalysed a burgeoning tourist industry.
As a result, our growing city’s roads are increasingly congested, as are many throughout much of north Staffordshire and across the wider economic sub-region. A revival of rail travel is not only sustainable, but essential and will further help to catalyse new housing and jobs growth without worsening the misery of road congestion.
However, while we bridge the northern powerhouse and midlands engine, in rail terms the city and the wider economic sub-region of north Staffordshire and south Cheshire sadly often fall between the stools of meso-level devolved authorities around Greater Manchester and Greater Birmingham. This unaccommodating situation is exacerbated by Stoke-on-Trent’s geographical position on the Network Rail map. The city appears as a kind of bottleneck between Network Rail areas. It is in fact split across two Network Rail devolved areas, with two thirds in London North Western and a third in London North Eastern. That is totally illogical, and there is no clear leadership provided across the north Staffordshire conurbation. Currently there is no scope for the city to enjoy remapping and franchise transfers of local services to a more Stoke-on-Trent-focused body or a company, as was suggested in the case of local Birmingham services from Nottingham and Leicester and the move from CrossCountry to West Midlands Rail.
Things are moving in the right direction, and it is encouraging that Network Rail is now considering a route study focusing specifically on the economic geography of north Staffordshire and south Cheshire, recognising the importance of developing plans that adequately satisfy future growth demands.