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Public Transport: North Staffordshire — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 23rd January 2020.

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Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 1:30 pm, 23rd January 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered bus services and public transport in north Staffordshire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that features heavily in my constituency correspondence and is frequently brought up by constituents on the doorstep. North Staffordshire’s public transport is simply not good enough. As my hon. Friend Jo Gideon and I made clear to the Minister’s colleague Baroness Vere recently, bus services are too few, too slow and too infrequent. Indeed, a survey I conducted in a number of communities in my constituency resulted in many hundreds of replies saying just that. We now have communities that lack any service, with elderly and vulnerable people left cut off. The removal of evening and weekend services has also had a major impact on people’s ability to get to work and get around the area.

At the same time, local train services—they are almost non-existent and are often overcrowded—have been under a slow process of decline. Little more than 100 years ago, north Staffordshire had an excellent local rail and tram network. Old maps reveal that we had one of the most comprehensive public transport networks in the country. Since then, local rail lines and local train stations have been lost. The tram network has gone altogether and the bus has risen and fallen as a replacement. It is on bus services that I will focus most of my remarks today.

I have held a debate on train services in north Staffordshire, and there are serious causes for optimism that the situation is improving, with greater capacity and better services promised on the Crewe-Derby North Staffordshire line. Under the new franchise, I am delighted that we will see longer trains, additional services at evenings and weekends and most services extending to Nottingham. I am campaigning to reopen Meir station in my constituency, and there is a definite feeling that for rail, like for Stoke-on-Trent itself, the trajectory is upwards, which will help to reduce the pressure on our congested roads.

There is little such optimism about bus services, and the picture has often just been one of looking at which service will be lost next. That is not to say that everything is terrible with buses in north Staffordshire and, as I will lay out today, it does not mean that there should not be optimism. I understand that the First Potteries No. 18 bus, which runs between Hanley and Leek bus station, now boasts plush new seats, USB charging points and wood-effect flooring. I certainly welcome that. It is long overdue and an example of best practice in the area. It would be good to see such improvements on services that run in my constituency, too. Frankly, it would be good to see any direct service to Leek from my constituency, even just on market days.

The city of Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six historic market towns, as well as numerous other towns and communities across north Staffordshire, each of which needs public transport provision serving its town centres. Hanley, by virtue of being the largest and in the middle of the city, is regarded as the city centre and has the largest bus station, which is also served by National Express coaches in Stoke-on-Trent. While Hanley might be the city centre, it is not the only centre. We have Tunstall, Burslem, Stoke town, Fenton and Longton—all centres in their own right with high streets to support and attractions to be visited. However, Hanley is not served by rail services. Those fell under the Beeching Act, as did those to Burslem and Tunstall, with all three on the old loop line that was immortalised in the literature of Arnold Bennett, but is sadly no longer a physical reality. Fenton lost its station even before Beeching, but Stoke and Longton fortunately still have stations, as do Longport, Kidsgrove and Blythe Bridge. Blythe Bridge is in the constituency of my hon. Friend Sir William Cash, just over the boundary from my seat, and the station is used by many of my constituents.

The six historic market towns in Stoke-on-Trent share a north Staffordshire identity that is more than merely geographical with the other historic market towns around the city, including Newcastle-under-Lyme, Kidsgrove, Biddulph, Leek, Cheadle, Stone and Stafford, which are home to many commuters to and from Stoke-on-Trent. Improving and enhancing the public transport links between all those towns is important for our economic growth. Sadly, bus use in the Potteries has declined by more than 10% in the past year alone, with more than 1 million fewer bus passenger journeys in 2018-19 than in 2017-18. The number of journeys fell from 10.4 million in 2017-18 to 9.3 million. Compounding the disappointment is the fact that bus use had at least seemed to have levelled off from the previous decline. The 10.4 million journeys reported in 2017-18 were an increase on the 10.3 million reported in 2016-17. However, at the start of the decade, more than 15 million journeys were recorded.

Since 2010, the relative cost of travelling by car has decreased considerably. Fuel duty has rightly been frozen and even for those who are entitled to free bus passes, the falling marginal cost of driving has disadvantaged bus services in relative terms. Relative price signals have often been compounded by the enhanced marginal utility of driving instead, particularly as cars have improved in personal comfort over the decade relative to buses. Once a decline in bus services begins, it all too often feeds on itself as the relative convenience of just jumping in a car becomes ever more pronounced. Against a backdrop of less frequent bus services, passenger utility is reduced even further. With the reduction in demand comes more cuts in supply.

In north Staffordshire, journey times by bus can be more than double those by car—sometimes easily treble or worse—due to the loss of direct cross-city routes. No doubt that story is familiar to Members in all parts of the country. I have raised the situation in north Staffordshire in particular because, as our local newspaper The Sentinel has highlighted, the decline in the Potteries has been much faster than in England as a whole.