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.