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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:03 pm on 23rd January 2020.

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Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Conservative, Staffordshire Moorlands 2:03 pm, 23rd January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important and timely debate. It is wonderful to be able to have this debate with all Members from north Staffordshire on this side of the Chamber. It has to be said that that is a first.

My constituents in Staffordshire Moorlands face similar issues to those that have already been described, but we have some additional issues that are down to the rurality of the constituency. It is one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country. A third of the seat by geography is in the Peak District national park. The constituency includes the highest village in the country, Flash, where the local pub, the New Inn, is 1,518 feet above sea level. There are many villages and hamlets in the constituency and only two towns, Leek and Biddulph.

Connectivity between those villages and towns is hampered by the topography of the area. As the name suggests, Staffordshire Moorlands is quite hilly. We do not have the kind of infrastructure that many of my colleagues have. There is no dual carriageway anywhere in the constituency. There is no train station; there is no main line that runs through the constituency. We have a heritage line, but we have no main train line in the constituency. Access to our towns and villages is very important and is a matter that is often raised by my constituents.

As I mentioned, a third of my seat is within the boundaries of the Peak District national park, and tourism is one of our major economic generators. We are home to Alton Towers, which is the most visited tourist attraction outside London. Everybody who goes to Alton Towers arrives by some form of road transport—a few by bus from Stoke-on-Trent station, but the vast majority by private car. The congestion on the roads at opening and closing time is a challenge for people living in the villages of Alton and Farley. I am sure many people in this room have been to Alton Towers and have wondered what exactly is happening, as they come off the dual carriageway of the A50 and go up a nice road past JCB World headquarters at Rocester, and then suddenly find themselves on tiny little windy roads going through villages. That is because Alton Towers is located in the beautiful village of Alton. It is the former home of the Earls of Shrewsbury, and it was designed by Pugin, so it is very reminiscent of where we are today. It is now a major tourist attraction that happens to be located in a very beautiful part of the country, and we therefore have some really specific concerns.

My hon. Friend Aaron Bell touched on the A53. Between Leek and Buxton, it is one of the most dangerous roads in the country. It is frequently in the top 10 or 20 roads in the country for fatalities and road traffic accidents.

I have described the situation with rail. Our bus network is woeful. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South talked about the new number 18 bus. It is a great thing to have a wi-fi enabled bus with USB points and everything else—a lovely green bus—but it runs only once an hour. It is not exactly frequent, and we have very few other buses in the constituency. As my hon. Friend Theo Clarke pointed out, we have the Moorlands Connect service. It is very good to have that dial-a-ride service, but the fact is that these villages and hamlets are not served by public transport, and that is contributing to rural loneliness and social isolation. It is contributing to people not being able to go and enjoy days out at our fantastic market in Leek and our monthly artisan market in Biddulph. People simply cannot get to these places, because there are no bus routes. A frequency of one bus every 10 minutes would be a dream come true; we are lucky if we have a bus twice a day sometimes.

Bus routes are being cancelled far too often, and there is a point at which somebody has to take responsibility. I have met the bus companies and they explain to me perfectly rationally why they cannot continue running the bus services—there simply is not the money to do it. I sit down with the county council and the city council and they explain to me perfectly rationally that the money is simply not there and they have to prioritise those services that are best value for money. The problem with those two rational bits of behaviour is that they have led to an irrational situation in which we simply do not have buses. Then we have buses, for example, that serve the village of Alton, but they are full of people going to Alton Towers, so nobody in the village of Alton can get on the bus to go where they want to get to, because it is full of tourists visiting Alton Towers.

Will the Minister ensure that some rationality is applied on bus routes overall and that we start looking at the strategy for buses in a holistic way across the whole of north Staffordshire, reflecting the fact that we have these incredibly rural areas that desperately need a way for people to get to the post office and the local market, to see their friends and live the kinds of lives that people in London would just think absolutely normal? They would think anything else unacceptable.

Reference was made to proposals for bus routes to Biddulph. I welcome those proposals, but while they are welcome, somebody needs to look at the road layout in Biddulph, because the redevelopment of the town centre when the new Sainsbury’s supermarket came to town just under 10 years ago means that getting buses round corners is not proving to be all that easy. We have speed humps and other things on the high street that make it very uncomfortable for people, and I hope the Government will examine that.

I will make a final point on buses before I move on to discuss trains. It is about school transport. The Minister will know that I have had meetings with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Baroness Vere on disability-compliant buses in school transport provision. The problem is that a court case last year found that if any child travelling on the buses was a paying passenger, the buses had to be disability compliant; otherwise, they were no longer insured. These are the public service vehicle accessibility regulations, or PSVAR. The issue has been resolved with a temporary fix to exempt buses on which no more than 20% of children are paying passengers. As I have described, a lot of people have to travel a significant distance to get to school, and they do not all qualify for free school transport, for a variety of reasons. On the buses on which the free school transport is run, children who do not qualify for free transport are charged.

The exemption is very welcome. We have had to get a further exemption for buses for faith schools, because the rules around faith schools and free school transport are more complicated, which meant that more of the children on the buses were paying. We have a further exemption for that, and I visited Boydons Coaches in my constituency last week to discuss this issue, but we need a long-term fix. Small operators such as Boydons simply cannot afford to buy a brand new disability-compliant bus. It does not fit with their business model; they need to buy second-hand coaches. They have very smart and nice coaches, but there are no second-hand disability-compliant coaches on the market at the moment. The large coach firms simply did not invest in them at the time they needed to, and I would be very happy to sit down with the Minister and explain the detail of it. It is complicated, but we need a long-term fix so that bus operators can continue in business.

I have said that we do not have a main railway line running through Staffordshire Moorlands, but we do have a line. It was closed during the Beeching era, but it still exists, and many attempts have been made to try to reopen the line. There are a few problems with it. The station in Leek is now a supermarket, so there would need to be investment in a new station. The line unfortunately ends at Longton and does not go on to the main station at Stoke. This is one of the issues facing a city made up of six towns: sometimes the connectivity between those six towns has not been all that good. The line that was closed in the ’60s did not require, at that point, connectivity to the west coast main line, but reinstating a line that did not have connectivity to the west coast main line would be nonsensical. Investment, and probably another platform at Stoke station, would be needed to get a connection and allow the line to work. The line continues from Leek into the countryside and goes as far as Alton, so it could service Alton Towers if it were reinstated.

I want to express a new idea. Instead of thinking, “Well, we have a line. Let’s put some trains on it,” why do we not think about a different form of rail—maybe light rail, or even a tram service? If we could get a quieter electric tram service that operated perhaps as far as Alton Towers, but definitely between Leek and Stoke-on-Trent, it would benefit many of my colleagues’ constituencies. My constituency borders Stoke-on-Trent North, Stoke-on-Trent South and Stoke-on-Trent Central, all of which would benefit from a tram line. I wonder whether we north Staffordshire MPs could put on our thinking caps and work out what a light rail service might look like. We have all seen what a difference the Metrolink has made to Manchester.