Transport for Towns

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley 4:30 pm, 19th February 2019

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.