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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:17 pm on 23rd January 2020.

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Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 2:17 pm, 23rd January 2020

Thank you, Sir Christopher, for chairing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute, and I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), on securing it. There is great consensus among all the north Staffordshire and Stafford MPs about some of the issues and how we need to address them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South ably put it, Stoke-on-Trent is today too car-centric and has too few rail and bus services, no trams and scant provision for cycling. Pedestrians, and town centres themselves, are too often treated as an inconvenience to traffic flow across the city. Places that would once have been market squares or bustling high streets now act instead as mere thoroughfares for vehicular traffic trying to get somewhere else. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South pointed out, we are one city but we are made up of six distinct historic market towns.

I have the great honour to represent Stoke town and Hanley, including the main railway station for the city in Stoke and the main bus and coach station for the city in Hanley. Although the city has taken welcome strides to regenerate Hanley as the city centre, my strong opinion is that it has failed for too many years to make the most of either Stoke town or the Trent, both of which are very close to, and should be an easy walk from, the railway station. I know from talking to residents in Stoke town, and its surrounding suburbs of Penkhull, Boothen, Oak Hill, Trent Vale, Hartshill and Basford, that they have been feeling left out. Well, their voices will be heard through me. It is absolutely essential to go ahead with the works to improve the onward journey to Hanley from the east side main exit of Stoke station. However, the west side exit needs equal attention to connect it properly to Stoke town, thereby giving pedestrians the most direct journey possible via Elenora Street, through the exciting development at Spode Works, on to the heritage high street of Church Street and London Road.

Stoke town is separated from Stoke-on-Trent railway station by eight lanes of traffic and a canal, and pedestrian access is a long and unattractive walk round. That barrier must be bridged—literally—if the strategic aim of increasing footfall in Stoke town is to be realised in full. A pedestrian and cycle bridge needs to be built from the station’s west side entrance, across the road and canal to the side of Stoke town that has suffered most from being cut off from the station. I want to see it as an integral part of the city council’s otherwise excellent transforming cities fund bid, which currently indicates minor improvements to the existing pedestrian route. That means that it will still take more than 10 minutes to walk from Stoke railway station to Stoke town centre.

There are concerns about the cost, of course, but if the Minister would come to Stoke and see how and where a new bridge would fit into the wider regeneration of the west side of Stoke station, she would see how important such a bridge was to making every penny of the scheme work. I note that a similar bridge in Barnsley, if a little less ambitious, is costed at between £5 million and £6 million. Such a bridge in Stoke would have a clear view down Elenora Street towards the old Spode Works, which is being transformed into an amazing, accessible cultural destination, with its museum, hotel, café and workshops. It would be deeply disappointing if, after so much had been invested in Stoke station, it still took the people of Stoke more than 10 minutes to walk to it, as planned. To finance a bridge, there may be room for savings from the current transforming cities fund bid. Local concerns have been raised about the proposed canopy, for example, which would look a bit like the roof of Portcullis House. I would greatly value a discussion with the Department about that.

Fundamentally, Stoke town suffers from the fact that its main square, Campbell Place, was reduced to a thoroughfare of four-lane traffic some years ago. Viable public transport alternatives to the car, including buses, are absolutely vital if we are to reverse the 1960s and ’70s road traffic planning, which has done nothing to help the vibrancy of the town as a place to enjoy, linger and spend time.

The River Trent runs from the north of my constituency to the south, and for most of its length one would not know it was there, yet it could be one of the most pleasant pedestrian routes through the city. The Thames path was once a pipe dream, but its reality shows that it was right to dream big. Equally, there is more to be made of the Trent and Mersey Canal, and branches of it, to provide handy walking and cycling routes through the city. Access could be improved in various parts of the city, and more could be done to separate pedestrians and cyclists at certain pinch points, particularly around bridges. We need to see buses stop in convenient places for joining canal and river paths.

I deliberately say that we need to see buses stop, not that we need to see bus stops. On Leek Road in my constituency, there are already bus stops that could serve the Trent Mill nature park along the River Trent at Joiners Square, but they are no longer in service. Ironically, unlike too many of the bus stops in Stoke-on-Trent, those unused bus stops have shelters. Shelters are very important to bus users, particularly when the clouds burst and we get a dose of the rain that keeps Stoke-on-Trent a green and pleasant city. We need more of them.

In order that more people enjoy the greenery of Hanley Park, I fully support the council’s bid to improve the frequency and reliability of connections to Hanley from Stoke-on-Trent station via College Road, which runs alongside Hanley Park and affords great views of it.

I am really excited by the prospect of being a super-bus city. My constituents are the biggest users of buses in the city, and one third of households in Stoke-on-Trent central do not own a car. We need something radical such as the super-bus scheme to remind people how useful and relevant bus services can be in the transport mix. We should make them attractive for the people who forgo an alternative mode, and sustainable for the people who have no choice but to rely on them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, Hanley used to be served by Etruria station, which was completely demolished and excavated beyond trace under the previous Labour Government, even though private rail companies were willing to run trains there. It was supposedly to speed up services down the west coast main line. Etruria served both Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme. It certainly needed clearer pedestrian routes to the city centre, but it has done no good locally for it not to be there at all. Any funding for a study into restoring the station and improving its strategic function in a seamless public transport system would be very welcome indeed.

I accept that much of the lost North Staffordshire Railway network—the Knotty, as it was known—is unlikely ever to be brought back into service. The old line to Newcastle, for example, has been built on. The most likely contender to reopen is the line from Stoke-on-Trent to Leek via Fenton Manor. In my constituency, it could serve stations at some combination of Joiners Square, Bucknall Park, Abbey Hulton and, at somewhere on the boundary with Stoke-on-Trent north, Birches Head Academy. Going north, it would have stations in Stoke-on-Trent north and Staffordshire Moorlands that a good number of my constituents would be able to walk to: Milton and Stockton Brook. The line would end at Leek, where it would meet parts of the North Staffs Railway that are preserved as a heritage railway through the Moorlands countryside. My right hon. Friend Karen Bradley has long supported the scheme, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) favours it too. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has raised it in a previous debate on train services in north Staffordshire, which he referred to earlier.

Having being closed to passenger traffic many decades ago, the line continued to serve as a mineral line until relatively recently. It is mostly overgrown with trees, but the track bed is still there and the route has not been built on, although I understand that there is a legal battle over whether it is a public right of way for walking at the Moorlands end. I will be grateful if the Minister has any update on the contact that the Department has had to find out what the current intentions are on that.

If the Minister is able to accept an invitation to visit the city, I am sure that, between us, we could put together quite a tour of the relevant sites across Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. It would be good to highlight the huge potential for honing the plans in the transforming cities fund bid, and achieving a great deal with the money we are asking for. By getting it right locally, we will have our greatest economic impact nationally.