I beg to move,
That this House
has considered transport for towns.
I appreciate the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. The presence here of so many of my hon. Friends and other parliamentary colleagues shows the strength of feeling on the towns that we represent and on the importance of transport to our communities and their survival. There is no successful town that cannot move people around it efficiently, moving workers from homes to places of work at all hours, visitors to hospitals, patients to GPs, students to schools and colleges and even people on trips to the pub, cinema or leisure centre.
I represent a constituency of just over 100,000 people living in more than 30 towns and villages. Apart from one suburb, all those communities are detached from Doncaster town centre, many with open countryside in between. Undertaking my monthly surgeries across seven wards involves a 62-mile round trip. Reliance on cars is essential for many in those outlying communities, as public transport has failed them. Effective transport is central to revitalising our post-industrial towns and giving new life to our smaller town communities.
We often hear about connectivity, but that is all too often about links—massive infrastructure projects costing many billions of pounds—to major cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester in the north. No matter how right those projects are for our regions and for the country, they jar with people frustrated by the everyday transport problems that they face.
“Dear Tony, I see the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any chance of a better bus service in Bristol?”
I want those voices to be heard. Like many of my colleagues here, I have fought against post office and bank closures. I have been exasperated by the last-call attitude to providing mobile phone and broadband coverage to our homes and businesses in towns. I struggle to understand why new housing developments are built without broadband.
The reality of transport for Britain’s smaller towns is very different from our cities. Our communities are often the places travelled past, not to; communities that no longer have rail services, or a bus service on certain days of the week or in the evenings. Last year, Joseph Rowntree Foundation research found that unaffordable and unreliable public transport cuts off the poorest families in the north of England from crucial job opportunities, making it harder for them to attend job interviews or to hold on to paid employment. Poor transport entrenches poverty.
My right hon. Friend is making an important speech. A lot of people in rural villages around Hartlepool, such as Elwick, are getting older. Does she agree that improvements to bus services, which can be vital links, are important not only to keeping those communities going but, from a social and welfare perspective, to keeping those older people connected to the towns that serve them?
I absolutely agree. I actually speak from personal experience, second hand though it may be, because my husband, Phil, lived in Stockton and travelled to Hartlepool every day to go to secondary school. In many respects, the service was probably better then than today for many of our schoolkids.
That is an important point about young people. I will talk later about the fatalities in my constituency of young drivers, who are often forced into getting a car as it is the only means of getting around. These young people are not drinking or anything else but are just inexperienced drivers on our country and rural roads. That is a big problem.
My right hon. Friend and I have been good friends for many years, and I think we share the desire for a really good rail link across the northern regions and the northern midlands. That is absolutely essential. We now know that HS2 will cost £100 billion. Does she agree that it would be better if we invested that money in good local transport across the north of England?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the rising cost of those major infrastructure projects. Many people around the country find it hard to believe how much money is spent on HS2 and other projects—in some cases misspent if the projects are not kept on budget—when they find it hard to find a few thousand pounds for something that could make a big difference locally.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. I was talking to an old man in Spennymoor in my constituency who told me that when he was young he had taken a train from Spennymoor to Spain. Now there is not even a railway station, and it costs £10 to take a bus from Spennymoor to Barnard Castle. Does she agree that high bus fares make it impossible for most people to use public transport?
That is absolutely right. Although parts of our community get access to cheaper fares, for many people it is still a problem. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study makes the point that, for many of our constituents who are sadly at the lowest end of the pay scale, once they factor in transport costs and the hassle of getting to work—particularly if they are on shift patterns—it is hardly worth while. I have always been a strong believer that work should pay.
I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. Ashfield falls under the north-east of England traffic commissioner. The latest annual figures show that 712 bus services were cancelled in that area, compared with 178 in the south-east and metropolitan area. That pattern has been repeated every year for the last six years. Is it not true that we are paying twice as much for half as good a service in our towns? That has to change.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it has to change. At its heart, this is about understanding the price of everything but the value of nothing. Too often, it is the economical routes—if that is the right word to use—that the operator is attracted to. Meanwhile, the areas of the country that cannot compete with our cities—certainly not London and the south-east—do not get a look in because it does not pay. That has to change for the common good.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is making an important argument. In Greater Manchester, 8 million miles of bus services were lost between 2014 and 2017. All too often, bus companies cherry-pick the profitable routes and ignore others, which means that many people on the outskirts, such as in Affetside in my constituency, are left behind. Does she agree that social prescribing should include access to transport to avoid isolation and the knock-on impact that that has on the wider social health of our population?
I absolutely agree. As a former Public Health Minister, I have always thought that we should not be confined to the clinical aspect of public health. It is also about housing and transport. So much of this debate is about air pollution, and given that our buses could run on green fuel, I would have thought that that is a no-brainer as a way to get people on to more sustainable, greener and affordable transport systems, which benefit not only individual travellers but the wider community by reducing air pollution.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate about transport in our towns. Normanton in my constituency used to be at the heart of the national rail network. Now, we have only one train an hour into Leeds, even though it is only about a 20-minute drive away. We see that pattern across the country. Towns are losing their connections, and there is real resentment about the fact that such a high proportion of the investment and infrastructure is going into cities, while towns are getting an unfair deal. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government must change their pattern of investment across the country if towns are to get a fair deal in the future?
My right hon. Friend is right. It is unfair to blame people for not taking up some of the massive job opportunities that our cities offer when it does not make sense for them to do so. We must change not only the investment but the attitude to transport. It is not just about cities but our towns. My right hon. Friend is right that our communities are being not only left behind but bypassed. They are isolated and excluded by planners, operators and, I am afraid, policy makers, who see them as uneconomic.
I was brought up in the Tyneside conurbation, and the passenger transport executive supplied an integrated bus system in the 1970s. My parents never had a car and travelled everywhere by bus and metro. We need a change of structure, so that our towns are brought into transport systems and we do not have a separate, privatised structure, which is at the heart of the problem that we now face.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Sometimes we have to look again at the old ideas that worked and see where they fit in the world we live in today. I am a great believer in not reinventing the wheel. What we do not need is just another set of initiatives that get rebranded as one Transport Minister passes the job to another and that mean we do not make any progress. What matters is what works. But first, to get to what works, we have to understand what people and communities actually need and how that can be inclusive.
“long-term under-investment stretching back decades”.
He is right, but still today London receives £4,155 of transport spend per person. That is two and a half times the figure for the north and five times more than Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-east.
As co-chair of the northern powerhouse all-party parliamentary group, I recognise the importance of our cities to the regions and smaller communities of the north. We need to accelerate the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail to provide a fast Hull-Manchester-Liverpool service. I do not want this debate to be about towns versus cities or the north versus London. However, big cities are magnets for investment in transport, technology, culture and jobs on a level that few UK towns could ever aspire to achieve. My constituents want to be able to travel to our cities for both work and pleasure. We want bright young professionals for whom city living is the pull—I get that; I was young once—
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comment. We want those young professionals to be able to travel easily and at an affordable price to work in our local schools and health services. As my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper pointed out, we have to have a twin-track transport strategy whereby we can deliver for both our towns and our cities. When announcements are made about the mega transport projects, the smaller schemes, which speak to our communities, should get equal billing.
I have a message of hope for this Minister. All is not lost; small changes can make a big difference. My own experience as the MP for Don Valley speaks to this. Under the last Labour Government, by 2002 Doncaster town centre had a new road bridge over the River Don. By 2005, two old, dirty bus stations were united in one airport-style clean and safe bus interchange attached to Doncaster railway station. Those two vital schemes are in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Dame Rosie Winterton, but they benefit everyone across Doncaster.
In 2002, a road bridge replaced a level crossing, connecting my communities of Denaby and Conisbrough to the economic developments in the Dearne valley. Doncaster’s 100-year aviation history was brought to an end when our last airbase, RAF Finningley, was closed in 1995. It was destined at that point to become my area’s third prison. Backed by a people-led campaign, FLY—Finningley Locals say Yes—I lobbied the newly elected Labour Government to cancel the prison and secure a commercial airport. My 1997 election address pledged to secure a link road from the M18 to Rossington village. Today, Doncaster Sheffield airport, which opened in 2005, supports more than 1,000 jobs and the planes fly to more than 50 destinations.
The road scheme took somewhat longer—21 years, with the final mile of the Great Yorkshire Way completed last year. It is not often that constituents tell us what a difference something has made to their lives, but that four miles of road network has done just that. It has cut 15 minutes off journey times to Sheffield and other work centres. It has ended the Cantley crawl along Bawtry Road to reach a route to the M18. The Great Yorkshire Way connects the Humber ports to the iPort strategic rail freight interchange—a development that created more than 2,000 jobs, including at a large Amazon distribution centre.
However, the relatively small results count just as much. I have had to fight with Government and planners over the years to ensure that the Rossington part of the road scheme was not dropped. Rossington was known as the village with one road in and one road out. People could be left waiting for 20 minutes because of the level crossing servicing inter-city trains. Now, they are connected to the Great Yorkshire Way; Rossington has a road that it feels it owns and can be proud of. That is how all infrastructure projects should be managed—by not losing sight of how important the small picture is to the bigger picture.
Not every town can have an airport to help to lever in transport investment, but every town can have its own small or large success story. Many towns and villages in Don Valley would benefit from better public transport services, as well as investment in road maintenance, including traffic calming. Many of my smaller communities, where national speed limits apply on rural roads, suffer from speeding traffic. We have an above-average rate of fatalities caused by young drivers. I believe speed is part of the cause, but the funding pot for repairs to roads and effective traffic management has suffered unsustainable cuts.
Housing built around a coalmining industry where people walked to work cannot cope with modern car ownership. There is a lack of parking spaces, so cars and commercial vehicles are parked on grass verges. That is unsightly and sometimes leads to antisocial behaviour, so we end up with a policing problem. Where funds have been found to tackle that practically, but not at the expense of green space, residents and the wider community have benefited. Small changes make a big difference, but there is not enough money, which stops a strategic programme being put together that gets the job done over time.
Last summer, I discovered that the 57 bus had been changed. Despite bus operators, the passenger transport executive and local authorities forming a bus partnership, they left Blaxton, one of my villages, with no convenient service to the nearest secondary school and sixth-form college, and some residents with no service to their GP practice in Finningley. On investigating, I found that neither the GP practice nor Doncaster clinical commissioning group had been consulted, and nor had the dial-a-ride service, which the bus operator assumed could provide transport for patients. Assumptions had been made about the school opening hours, too, which turned out to be wrong. I think that is typical of what happens in many small towns and villages. I do not think my transport stories are an exception.
I am sure the Minister will dazzle us with examples of funding pots and schemes to address concerns about transport in towns. I am not in denial about those initiatives, but too many of them just do not hit the mark. I support devolution, but it cannot be a journey just from Whitehall to the town hall. Our smaller communities still get left behind. I therefore have three asks of the Minister.
First, I want the Government to launch a national conversation about transport in towns. I do not want it to be dominated by the professionals, big businesses, the committee people and the usual suspects who respond to Government consultations. Instead, let us find new ways to hear from people in our towns and villages—people like the lady who wrote to Tony Benn all those years ago—about what bugs them and what makes them infuriated when they hear about the mounting billions spent on HS2 and other big Government projects that over-spend and under-deliver. What do we have to fear? A massive transport tab? Give the people credit. My constituents inspire me every day with their no-nonsense approach and understanding of priorities. Give them the chance to express their choices.
Secondly, we need a bus consultation review so that when bus operators and planners consult on new routes and timetables, the obvious destinations, such as shops, markets, schools and health centres, are all taken into account before changes are made.
Thirdly, we need to establish a rebuilding Britain fund that supports smaller but just as important infrastructure projects for our towns and villages. This is not just about transport, but transport without a doubt should be a significant part of it. If that fund is to work, our small towns cannot be expected to provide the kind of match funding that our cities and large towns can muster. Too often, they miss out on central funding because the match funding required is undeliverable locally. The fund should not require match funding. Alternatively—here is an idea—the Government should seek national or regional sponsors to support our towns, alongside Government resources, through the rebuilding Britain fund.
I do not expect the Minister to say, “Yes, yes, yes,” to those three asks, but I would welcome the opportunity—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I can always be surprised. I would welcome the opportunity to meet other colleagues to explore my asks at a later date. This debate follows an earlier Westminster Hall debate secured by my right hon. Friend David Hanson on Government support for a town of culture award, in which I and many other Members present participated. There will be more to come. We will not stop standing up for our towns and villages. We will not stop trying to convince the Government and all our political parties to remember that the voices of people in our towns count as much as those of people living in our cities and wealthy university towns, and to say to our towns that their best days are not behind them, that decline is not inevitable and that their communities do matter.
Order. I will have to call the first of the Front-Bench spokespeople at eight minutes past 5. Seven people want to speak, so I will have to restrict speeches to two and a half minutes. I am sorry about that, but we have limited time. I ask people to bear that in mind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank Caroline Flint for securing this important debate.
Transport connectivity is essential for many members of our communities in achieving daily activities such as going to work, places of education and medical appointments, and participating in leisure and other activities. For some, that involves travelling to and from neighbouring towns and villages, and we need to ensure that adequate and affordable public transport connectivity is in place.
Connectivity is only as good as the timetabling allows. Some of my constituents in Cumnock recently raised the issue of the revised bus timetable, which results in them arriving unsociably early or unfashionably late for work. Greater care must be taken in the notification of proposals and there must be improved consultation on any public transport changes, with active participation from those who are likely to be affected.
Even worse than timetable changes, an inordinate number of buses and bus routes have been withdrawn, which has had a negative effect, particularly on people in rural communities seeking to go to and from work. Lifestyle choices will have a bearing on the transport that commuters utilise, although some people have little or no choice, particularly in rural areas. Life events outwith their control, such as an illness that requires regular treatment, may influence people’s preferred mode of transport between, for example, Ayrshire towns and the excellent Beatson oncology centre in the city of Glasgow. Any transport infrastructure also needs to be mindful of those with limited mobility.
In my constituency, with the publicised threat of some specialist NHS services being relocated to larger towns and cities, it is important that we consider the needs of different travellers at different times in their life journey. Many communities and charities run community transport buses, which—believe me—are a lifeline in rural Scotland. It is vital that we support them where possible and that we do not overlook the varied needs of rural and urban communities.
I am conscious of the time. It is important that we invest in affordable, functional and durable transport infrastructure that enhances the ability of our constituents to journey safely within and between our towns and cities. The UK Government’s industrial strategy recognises the need for investment in greener, cleaner transport and for support for electric vehicles, including public service vehicles. We need towns with safe cycling and electric vehicles that lead to clear air to breathe, where trees and greenery intertwine with modern connected living. I hope that the Minister will continue to support such investment throughout the United Kingdom, including the much-needed improvements to public transport.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. Many passengers across Greater Manchester had a torrid time last year. With daily disruption on the rail network and congestion on the motorway network due to smart motorway construction, getting around has been hard. Transport issues form a constant, if not large, part of my constituency casework, and my office regularly receives complaints, particularly about late or cancelled bus services.
My colleague, Councillor Phil Burke, who is a member of the Transport for Greater Manchester committee, describes the buses serving my constituency as dire. He points out that it takes up to an hour to make the average 10-mile journey to Manchester from the area, which is unacceptable for anyone trying to get to work in the morning. He also points out that we are in a vicious circle, with people not using the buses because they are unreliable, which leads to prices being hiked up because of low patronage or to services being cut altogether. With rail services available to only part of my constituency, my constituents are more reliant than most on good bus services. Until the damage done by deregulation is put right, bus services in my constituency will continue to be the poor relation of public transport.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is working to create an integrated bus system that will be more affordable, more reliable and more accessible for disabled people. For the last 30 years, however, bus companies in Greater Manchester have been run in the private, rather than the public, interest. That needs to change. We are still waiting for the Department for Transport to put all the necessary regulations in place to enable franchising to begin under the Bus Services Act 2017 and for the much-needed reform of our bus services to commence.
If we do not have good transport in our local communities, no one benefits. Transport has to be affordable and reliable. It is a vital link for young people to access education and gain skills and for people to get to places of work, and it boosts the local economy. For the elderly, transport plays a vital part in helping them to access local services, such as hospitals and GPs, as well as in tackling social isolation. I am conscious of the time, so I will call it a day there.
I congratulate Caroline Flint on securing this debate, which gives me another opportunity to raise important local transport priorities with the Government.
The economic opportunities for an area such as Mansfield, the largest town in Nottinghamshire, are greatly improved by good transport links. The ability to attract new employers to create jobs so often comes from quick and easy access to major motorway and railway networks. Such major infrastructure needs to be supported by the Government, however, because often the projects are on such a scale that they are not viable for local authorities to consider alone.
The town of Mansfield has experienced challenges similar to those of all growing towns. The housing is built, but the infrastructure cannot cope, in particular our roads, which were built for a time when fewer if any cars were on the road. The A60, the main road through my constituency, is a prime example: to the south, it is congested because of a poorly planned retail park, with 1,700 new homes to be built shortly as well, while to the north it is narrow and surrounded by housing, which makes expansion incredibly difficult. I very much appreciate the Secretary of State’s multiple visits, which have built great momentum behind the plans to improve the junction and traffic flow at the retail park. I hope to secure Government support for the project this year.
The roads were just not built for a town of this size, but there are economic opportunities from road investment, including in the A617, which is known as the Mansfield Ashfield regeneration route, or the MAR. It has grown steadily to accommodate new housing, and it could expand further to support new jobs and to provide an increasingly necessary route for heavy traffic to get around Mansfield, rather than to plough through the middle of it.
Rail infrastructure, too, can have a big impact. Increasingly, people see Mansfield as a commuter town, from which to travel to Nottingham or Sheffield, but we do not have a national rail link, only the Robin Hood line to Nottingham. I want to improve on that. We have one of the best value-for-money rail expansion projects in the country. We are opening an existing line, extending the Robin Hood from Shirebrook through to Warsop, Edwinstowe and Ollerton, linking historically deprived communities to jobs at the former collieries at Welbeck and Thoresby pits, and tying in our tourism offer in Sherwood forest with access from our towns to make the most of the social and economic opportunities of such tourism. In the future, only a short hop will be needed to link Mansfield directly to the HS2 hub at Chesterfield. HS2 could be a game-changer for towns such as ours, but it will only work if communities can access it effectively and efficiently, and local lines will be pivotal.
There are major opportunities to utilise transport improvements to support ever-growing towns, whether in boosting infrastructure or improving the scope to attract new jobs and businesses. I hope that the Government’s priorities in the industrial strategy will genuinely seek to boost towns, which are often more deprived, more isolated and more in need of support. The east midlands in particular sits at the bottom of the list of the Government’s regional investment. Transport could play a big role in changing that. I will continue to raise with the Department for Transport those relatively cheap projects that can make all the difference to our community.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint on securing this important debate. I despair, however, at the necessity for it, because once again hon. Members find themselves discussing transport struggles. As usual, we see that smaller towns have been overlooked. In fact, two months ago to the day I stood here in Westminster Hall to relay the disgraceful experience of many people in Barnsley with our local rail services: prices are extortionate, delays regular and, when trains arrive, they are dilapidated, overcrowded and, frankly, better placed in a transport museum.
For many, the bus services around Barnsley are little better. Too often, they are run in the interests of profit, rather than as the essential public service that they provide. Many of my constituents in relatively rural towns are left isolated or out of pocket because of decisions made by the bus companies. Those companies pay no mind, for example, to my older constituent who, when his local service was changed, faced the prospect of spending a third of his weekly pension on a taxi to his local hospital appointments. They care little about my disabled constituent who, since the removal of her bus service, is forced to rely on the good will of neighbours to access the shops, library, post office or hairdresser. She is left, in her words,
“so isolated, lonely and fed up”.
That is simply not acceptable.
Bus services are the lifeblood of towns such as mine, but are too often run solely in the interests of profit. When unprofitable routes are cut, little mind is paid to the impact it has on the people who rely on them. Bus services should remain just that: a service.
Two months ago, the Minister admitted that
“it is fair to say that rail services across Yorkshire and the north as a whole have not been good enough.”—[Official Report,
The fact of the matter is that that is true for many transport services in towns throughout the country, in particular northern towns such as Barnsley. It is about time that the Government finally addressed that woeful imbalance, and ensured that the interests of the public are taken into consideration in town transport services.
I congratulate Caroline Flint on securing this debate. I represent Comber and Newtownards, which are small former mill towns with textile factories and a linen industry, so I well understand to what she is referring.
We see the loss of industry to foreign fields. The vast majority of people who once walked to work now travel to work, if they can, and there is little or no infrastructure to deal with that. If someone misses a bus in my constituency, they will not get another in five minutes; it will be 45 minutes or 60 minutes. If they miss their bus, they miss their work and then they will not have a job. It is little wonder that so many use their car or taxis, as there simply is not the infrastructure in place to allow people to use public transport. Access to cars has gone up six percentage points in 10 years in Northern Ireland.
The fact of the matter is that areas with unaffordable and unreliable public transport cut off the poorest families. The right hon. Lady referred to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which did a survey interviewing people in neighbourhoods across the north of England and Scotland. It found:
“Transport was consistently highlighted as a significant barrier to work once the trade-off between the cost, reliability and speed of local public transport;
and the prospect of low-wage, insecure work was considered.”
We did a similar survey in Northern Ireland. The travel survey for Northern Ireland found that 17% of people travelled on a bus once a week, 9% travelled by bus at least once a month, 44% said they never travelled by bus, 3% travelled on a train once a week, and 6% travelled by train at least once a month. When asked what would encourage them to use local public transport, 28% said cheaper fares and 19% said more frequent weekend services. Just under a fifth said that nothing would persuade them to use local public transport. Those are the issues.
The numbers paint a clear picture: we need much better public transport links to enable people to look further for work and to enable people to travel affordably and without having to work out if the job pays enough, given the bus fare. There is no quick fix and no short-term answer; there is only a need for funding a visionary plan. For me, any city deal should have enhanced links to towns and villages as a key component. To fail on that is to fail to unlock the potential of cities and the surrounding towns. Worse than that, we are failing to bring industrial towns and villages outside of the area up to modern-day life. That is grossly unfair and changes must be made.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint on securing this debate, which has demonstrated the strength of feeling across the House on the issues that face our local transport networks, particularly in towns.
Stoke-on-Trent is one city, but it is in fact six towns linked together by an artery of roads that all too often neither get people to the place they want to be, nor get them there on time. We struggle in Stoke-on-Trent because of the non-traditional geographical nature of our city. Towns that are no more than 2 miles apart do not have a direct bus route. In one instance, people can stand in one town and almost see the other, yet they have to travel through a third town to get there by bus. It is telling that since 1991, bus usership is up by 8% across the country, but network coverage is down by 30%. That is disproportionately affecting the small towns we all represent.
In places like Stoke-on-Trent, bus companies make operating changes, and that has consequences. In my community, a morning bus service at school time was changed, meaning that young people could either get to school an hour early or 10 minutes late. I am not convinced that the consequential impact of such changes on the day-to-day lives of those we represent is being taken seriously by bus companies or the Government. The Government have given additional powers to the combined authority areas to do proper regulating and franchising of buses, but they have also extended that power to local authorities outside of those combined authority areas, if they can prove they meet the criteria and standards set by the Department for Transport. When the Minister is sums up, will she tell me how many times the Department has granted to local authorities that cover small towns those powers to get directly involved and bring their bus routes back into public ownership?
Municipal bus companies have not been mentioned. There are multiple examples around the country of small towns running their own bus services for public benefit at a profit to the taxpayer, meaning that services can be subsidised from a commercial interest. That is not being talked about and the Government appear to be opposed to the idea. When the Minister sums up, will she explain why she does not think small towns should be in control of their own bus services?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint on securing this important debate. I have to confess that I love buses. Being on one gives people a chance to daydream, to chat to strangers, and now, on wi-fi-enabled buses, to do their emails. Communities like mine—clusters of small communities—really rely on their bus routes.
The economic gap between towns and cities is demonstrated by the differing opportunities to use buses to get out and about. The Urban Transport Group has shown that one in 10 people would be out of a job without their bus service. Two thirds of bus passengers earn less than £24,000 a year. These are working people on low wages or benefits, the unemployed, students and retirees—people who are already under pressure because of austerity.
With only one railway station in Batley and Spen, for a service that has really struggled with timetable changes, our roads are becoming increasingly congested, with parking on pavements and speeding cars being common complaints. We need a green alternative, and buses are that alternative. With air pollution rising beyond official limits and deaths connected to poor air quality on the rise, we need more people to use buses and trains.
I have been inundated with correspondence on Arriva’s bus timetable changes in Batley and Spen. One woman might be forced to give up her cleaning job at a local school, which she has had for 18 years, because the bus will no longer go down her road. A 92-year-old will now have to use a taxi to get to the doctors, rendering her bus pass useless. Numerous residents have told me that the changes will result in them becoming further isolated from jobs and opportunities, robbing them of time with family, friends and loved ones. The changes have been made for cost reasons, but buses are not unprofitable. Bus companies have raked in a combined £3.3 billion in profit since 2009-10. We can make money out of these bus services.
We need to readjust our priorities for towns. Our constituents should not be abandoned by bus companies due to their emphasis on lucrative routes only. I echo my right hon. Friend’s request for a national transport and towns conversation, a bus consultation review and a rebuilding Britain fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate Caroline Flint on securing the debate. There is clearly a lot of interest in it, which I assume is why there are so many Members on these Benches, rather than it being part of any further breakaways from the Labour party.
On a serious point—this is a serious subject—the right hon. Lady correctly set out the problems of connectivity in rural areas, and how towns and villages, and the people in them, can be left behind. I was particularly struck by her saying that that can entrench poverty. My constituency covers many rural villages and towns. I actually stay in a village 5 miles from the main town of Kilmarnock, so I know all about the problems with bus services, the cost of bus fares and bus companies changing timetables without proper consultation with or consideration of the paying public.
On a more positive note, today saw the opening of the final stretch of the Aberdeen peripheral bypass, which was first planned 65 years ago and has finally been delivered by the Scottish National party Government. That is typical of the Union dividend that Scotland has had to deal with over the years and that it now has to rectify, post-devolution. We also had the last single-track trunk road—the vital trunk road to Mallaig—in the UK, which was only upgraded to allow traffic each way in 2009.
There has also been the Pulpit Rock upgrade on the A82, with a viaduct replacing what were supposed to be temporary lights but which were left in place for 30 years. The Crianlarich bypass on the A82 opened in 2014. There are ongoing upgrades to the A9, A96 and A75, and the M8 has been completed, as have the M74 and M80 extensions. Bill Grant will welcome the Maybole bypass, which is now receiving funding. That was first mooted in Westminster in 1989 and is now being delivered by the SNP Government.
The SNP Government also delivered the borders railway, which has been transformational. The rest of the UK could look at that when thinking about reconnecting the towns and villages left behind by the Beeching cuts. Since its reopening, we have seen new businesses on the borders, the creation of travel hubs and a massive increase in tourism and the associated increase in tourism jobs. Such developments create jobs and people do not necessarily need to travel once the connectivity is in place for visitors.
The Urban Transport Group published a particularly relevant document, “About towns: How transport can help towns thrive”, which states:
“Now, in a post industrial age, transport has a key role to play in putting these towns back on the map. After all, it is transport that can plug towns into larger city regions and national economies, and in doing so widen labour markets;
meet housing demand;
draw in investment;
and open up access to opportunity.”
We would all welcome that. It continues:
“Transport can also shape the way towns look, and the way they feel about themselves, through creating better and healthier streets;
though the sector’s employment, procurement and community involvement practices, and through the quality of new or transformed transport infrastructure.”
We cannot argue with those key findings. Others are using transport to open up new housing and commercial development opportunities in long-term master planning.
I was particularly struck by the document’s case study of Kilmarnock train station, under the subheading, “more than just a station”. It rightly covers the transformation of previously unused, partially derelict rooms in basement areas into vibrant community hubs in Kilmarnock train station. That was undertaken with Kilmarnock Station Railway Heritage Trust. That group is spearheaded by another Allan Brown—it feels like he is a more dynamic Allan Brown than me, given his achievements.
I will take that compliment, Mr Austin.
The trust managed to secure £500,000 of funding from a number of sources and brought seven station rooms back into use. They now host a gift shop, a coffee shop called Storm in a Teacup, and a bookshop called the Killie Browser, which has a huge range of second-hand books—rest assured, nobody can go in there and come out empty-handed. It is used to create skills and opportunities for people and to help people back into the workplace.
A number of community groups use the rooms. The Breaking Bread group involves local people coming together to cook together and socialise for one evening a week. A local peer support group has been set up, focusing on family-related issues. The group receives community reinforcement and family training in order to improve relationships and family communication. “Living life to the full” training is offered via eight sessions over eight weeks, to help with low mood, confidence and self-esteem, and with breaking cycles of negative thinking. The transformation of the station is also transforming people’s lives, helping them in a social environment and moving them on from social exclusion. It really is more than a station.
Next to Kilmarnock station, we have the fantastic Kilmarnock campus of Ayrshire College, which is helping to regenerate the former Johnnie Walker site. That is another example of master planning. It is reconfiguring college housing and locating it next to important transport hubs. That is how we can change towns for the better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint on securing this important debate, and I thank her for raising the important issue of transport in towns. It is clear that the issues that towns face are distinct from those affecting major cities and the countryside. There are several thousand towns across the UK, ranging in size from a few thousand people to a couple of hundred thousand residents. Many have a long history. They are linked to their local area, have particular industries and are situated in particular parts of the country. Their identity and the local economy often differ considerably from those of cities. Some have less effective transport links, and many can feel different and distinct.
I am proud to represent Reading, which is one of England’s largest towns. It is a borough with a long history. It is the site of an important medieval abbey, the burial place of Henry I, and was later an important industrial town. We are very lucky that our town sits on the main road and rail link between London and Bristol and south Wales. However, not all towns are as lucky, and many suffer from poor transport links. I will mention that later, as Labour has a range of policies to support our towns.
Many towns also suffer severe problems with congestion. It is important to address that serious issue, which wastes valuable time and money for businesses and harms the quality of life of many residents. A number of towns suffer from serious air pollution as a result. Given those serious problems, my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to call for a new focus on transport in towns. However, I am afraid to say that the current Government seem quite simply incapable of identifying that as an issue, even though transport problems in towns affect a huge number of people across the United Kingdom. I should say, however, that that is hardly surprising, given the woeful track record of Ministers and in particular the Secretary of State.
The evidence of that inept handling of transport policy is clear for all to see. Ministers have failed to see the scale of the need for investment across our country, as they have continued to put London and the south-east first. Encouraging long-distance commuting through their new roads fund has diverted resources that could have been spent on improving transport in towns. New A roads have been built to get from one city to another—or perhaps I should say to get from one traffic jam to another.
Ministers have cut funding for buses and failed to promote bus use, which has now declined for several successive years; indeed, bus funding has fallen by 45% since 2010. They have also failed to acknowledge that investment in buses is a simple, cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to cut congestion and give more people access to high-quality public transport. This ill-thought-through approach has hit pensioners, commuters and young people, all of whom rely on buses.
To make matters worse, the Government have also missed their targets for cycling and walking. Quite simply, they have failed to invest in the modes of transport that reduce congestion, improve health and the quality of life in towns, and protect the environment.
Labour’s strategic approach would provide a complete contrast to the years of failure under the current Government. Labour would introduce a young person’s bus pass and we would offer local control and improved services, to allow all councils to franchise bus services and set up new municipal companies. We would bring rail back into public ownership, which would improve services and lead to much more effective spending of money. We just have to look at the simple comparison between the profitable publicly owned east coast service, which paid a surplus back into the Treasury, and the recent bail-out of Virgin on the same line.
Labour would also invest in walking and cycling, and we would support imaginative schemes to join up parks and tow-paths, and encourage more cycling and walking in towns.
The UK is also one of Europe’s most unequal countries by region. Many of our towns and cities have suffered severe under-investment in transport, and we would be committed to ensuring that each region of the country receives its fair share of transport spending.
I will turn briefly to the excellent points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. First, she is absolutely right to highlight the Government’s failure to tackle transport problems affecting towns. She made a very important point about the need to make transport respond to the needs of local people in towns. The Government should review the way in which private bus providers consult on changes to routes, so that obvious destinations such as shops, markets, schools and healthcare centres are not excluded. Her third point was also telling: as I have said, for far too long infrastructure investment has been biased towards London and the south-east. It is high time that Ministers embraced a new deal for towns.
To conclude, this has been an important debate. Transport and the rejuvenation of our towns go hand in hand. I hope that this debate encourages the Government to realise that our towns’ best days are not behind them but in the future, and that communities matter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin.
I congratulate Caroline Flint on securing the debate. There has been a wide-ranging discussion this afternoon. I am pleased to note that this debate was not just about a particular journey from A to B but about how transport can regenerate our communities and bind them together. This afternoon, we have all discussed the fact that transport is essential for opportunity, growth and the wellbeing of the whole nation, including the towns that represent the living souls of the UK.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has set local transport as a key priority for the Department for Transport, recognising its vital role in achieving a prosperous and well balanced society. However, as has been noted this afternoon, most people say, if they are asked, that they just want their transport system to be local, convenient, clean, reliable and safe. They want to have less congested roads and better air quality. My Department is delivering on those expectations, but of course there is always more to do, and transport is a key driver for social and economic change.
I was pleased to note that the right hon. Lady spoke about technology. The 21st century is seeing rapid shifts in mobility, with the adoption of broader and more sustainable approaches. Social and economic trends are also changing people’s behaviour and attitudes. The digital revolution, the growing awareness about smart places, and the greater emphasis on sustainability and environmentally friendly ways to travel create new transport challenges and opportunities.
I would be pleased to respond to the right hon. Lady on the transport in towns conversation and the rebuilding Britain fund, but most hon. Members raised the issue of buses, so I will discuss them first. As I come fresh from the Select Committee on Transport session last week on buses, I hope that hon. Members will note that I am a particular advocate for them.
The right hon. Lady mentioned a quote from Bristol, is that correct?
I was just trying to find out the statistics for Bristol. The Member, or the resident, was obviously disturbed about how or when they could catch a bus, but if that Member was still around, the right hon. Lady could point out to them that 50% more people are using buses in Bristol compared with in 2009-10, as I saw on a visit last weekend.
No matter what happens with technology or how people change the way they want to travel, buses will still play a key part. More than 4 billion journeys take place on our buses and passengers satisfaction among those who use buses have the highest satisfaction compared with all other modes of transport. Buses will continue to play a huge role in our transport system. They connect our communities to the workplace and to vital public services such as healthcare and education. They are the quickest and most effective way to deal with people’s desire to get to work and school.
Most importantly, the Bus Services Act 2017 gave local authorities the option to manage those relationships even better, including new and improved options to allow transport authorities to enter into partnerships with their local bus operators. As was noted by many hon. Members, Mayors have additional franchising powers, too.
I was interested to note which hon. Members’ constituencies were in mayoral authorities. Liz McInnes mentioned that her local authority was waiting for an update in the regulations, but those regulations are already in place under the 2017 Act. Her local authority just needs to contact the Department and it will have the opportunity to enter into a voluntary or statutory relationship.
The hon. Lady shakes her head. If she wishes to get in touch with the Department, we can lay out how the plans can work for her local authority so it can take the relationship forward.
I believe the constituency of Stephanie Peacock sits under the mayoral authority of Dan Jarvis. Through the powers in the 2017 Act, the Mayor has the opportunity to franchise bus services. I had that conversation with him in person when he met me about HS2.
The hon. Lady was also keen to make sure that the right investment was made in the rail network in her region. About £48 billion of rail investment is projected between 2019 and 2024. There has also been a substantial amount of infrastructure funding—about £300 million—to help with HS2.
Gareth Snell was keen to understand how the 2017 Act could help his local authority. Local authorities can have a voluntary or statutory partnership with their bus companies. They just need to get in touch with the Department. We would welcome any interaction, because we are always delighted to enable local authorities to take that forward.
Having read the 2017 Act, I am acutely aware of what possibilities exist in it, but my specific question to the Minister is how many local authorities have taken up those powers outside mayoral combined authority areas. Simply having something on paper does not mean that local authorities are doing it. Can she give me a figure today of how many local authorities have taken up the powers that she references?
The hon. Gentleman raises a valuable point. Previously, the argument was that the powers were not available. The Department made those powers available in 2017—they have been in place for only a few years—and we are in conversation with a number of local authorities and Mayors. We need local authorities to put business cases together, come forward and be bold and responsible for the bus services that they should be making available to their local communities. The hon. Gentleman might also have noted his area has been shortlisted for a slice of the £1.28 billion transforming cities fund. I know that is a city and we are talking about towns, but we can ensure that buses are central to how that fund is allocated.
Does the Minister accept that communities such as Kirklees, where we have had a 60% cut to our council funding since 2010 and where, since One Yorkshire has been kicked back, we cannot currently get a Mayor, are in a perfect storm where bus services are stagnating?
I share the hon. Lady’s frustration and concern for her constituents who rely on bus services, but we have to remember that these are the choices that local authorities are making.
These are the choice that local authorities are making. They need to be aware that if they make changes to buses, they do more than just remove a mobility service; they affect people’s opportunities to access health, education and jobs. We all talk about devolution, but if we are going to talk about devolving these powers so that local authorities are responsible and in charge, they need to think about the impact of the choices they make on the communities they represent. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that there should be more funding available for buses in her area, because West Yorkshire has also been shortlisted for a share of the £1.28 billion transforming cities fund. I am sure that she—
I agree, but buses and towns will also play a part in that fund. Most of us have spoken about buses. We all have a role in ensuring that buses are part of that project and that, when local communities put in plans to transform transport, buses are not seen as something to add on at the very end.
One of the issues raised was how people can access buses and get information about what tickets are available and when services are running. The 2017 Act puts in place bus open data. That will require bus services to make public information about timetables, fares and tickets, which at the moment are not that easy to understand, in real time so passengers can make decisions about how and when to get the bus. That information will be available from 2020. Those improvements aim to remove uncertainty about bus journeys, improve journey planning and help passengers secure the best value for money for their tickets.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen was absolutely right to say that buses are the greenest option. That is why we recently announced a further £48 million for low emission buses, which means that catching a bus is also environmentally friendly. I believe there is also a discussion to be had about how buses are a way for people to communicate with each other. A huge amount of work was done on tackling loneliness on the back of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Once again, buses were seen as a service that some people take up just to have a conversation. I therefore urge all Members present to work with me to ensure that their local authorities understand how important bus services are.
I will touch on taxis for just a moment, because they are a key service in our towns. We recently responded to the taxi and private hire vehicle task and finish group, which put together proposals for ensuring that taxi and private hire vehicle passengers continue to be secure, on the back of the cases in Rotherham and Oxford. Only a few weeks ago, we announced that we will raise the basic threshold for drivers to secure a licence and will have a national database and national enforcement policies.
I was going to talk about walking and cycling, but I seem to have run out of time. I wanted to end with what the right hon. Member for Don Valley said about having a towns conversation and ensuring that we have a transport fund and strategy by touching on the future high streets fund and the transforming cities fund, but I believe she wants to respond, so I have run out of time—forgive me.
I am afraid the Minister did not really address the sum of all the parts of today’s contributions. Twelve Labour Members contributed to the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), for Bury North (James Frith), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) and for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper and my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Stroud (Dr Drew). We also heard from the hon. Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
Clearly, the sum of all the parts of those contributions adds up to a huge amount. The Minister did not address what our towns and villages are crying out for—a holistic strategy that understands that local areas need to be given not only powers but resources. I will take up the opportunity of a meeting with the Minister. By the way, Tony Benn has been dead for four years and the Russians landed a vehicle on the moon in 1959, when the letter I quoted was written.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (