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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:28 pm on 23rd January 2020.

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Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses) 2:28 pm, 23rd January 2020

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I draw colleagues’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I want to start by reflecting on some of the points made by Members from Staffordshire, and I will then address the wider national picture with regard to transport, and discuss some potential policy solutions to the problems we all face. I found myself nodding in agreement with the points made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). I represent an urban seat with many of the same problems, and I am aware of the same issues across the country. Our more rural colleagues suffer different sorts of transport problems, but we often face shared issues.

I want to highlight some points and praise Stoke City Council and the wider thrust of the initiatives that the hon. Gentleman describes. From the Opposition’s perspective, many medium to small-sized cities, and indeed great cities, face the challenge of growing congestion. The Victorian infrastructure means that it is impossible to extend the road network. Indeed, why would we want to, given the potential air pollution and congestion problems? Many towns and cities have problems with buses. I recognise that Stoke and the rural area nearby has particular problems, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently.

Rail connectivity needs to be improved across the country. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need to improve the network’s main arteries and branch lines, and to move the emphasis away from motorways and car-dependent development. That is a huge problem across much of England, particularly in densely populated counties such as those in the midlands and central southern England, where I come from.

I commend the desire of the hon. Gentleman’s local council to reduce bus fares and to provide a more rational system via enhanced partnerships. I gently suggest to him and to Jo Gideon to talk with colleagues in other urban areas, particularly Reading and Nottingham, which still have municipal bus companies—it is a national model with huge benefits. A number of other authorities follow the model, and I should add that some of them are under the control of political parties other than the Labour party. Low-cost tickets, greater frequency and bus-priority measures are all wise and sensible choices that, when implemented on a bigger scale, will hugely benefit residents across the country.

Karen Bradley and Aaron Bell articulated the rural issues very well. Market towns and rural areas suffer from a lack of connectivity. I can quite imagine, having been to Alton Towers and the Peak District—it was very enjoyable and absolutely beautiful—the problems faced by residents in those parts of Staffordshire given the lack of connectivity. Local tourism is welcome, but it places pressure on local services, which makes it harder for local people to get to where they need to go.

Conservative Members have made some excellent points. I have great sympathy with the situation in Stoke and Staffordshire. My Labour party colleagues and I understand the pressures in both urban and rural areas around the country, and wish ardently to see the problem addressed.

Now that the Government have been re-elected, I suggest to the Minister that more attention ought to be paid to the wider national problem. Hon. Members are absolutely right to discuss the needs of Stoke and the need for more intervention in the market to provide a better quality service for residents. They are quite right to propose improvements in local bus and rail travel as part of a wider series of improvements, such as the bridge across the main road in Stoke, mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Similar investments in other parts of the country have brought enormous benefits to those communities. In my town of Reading, a new pedestrian and cycling bridge over the River Thames has dramatically enhanced access to our town centre, produced huge benefits in public health and got vehicles off very busy roads.

I ask the Minister to look at what the example of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent tells us about the need for changes to national policy. As with other evidence from around the UK, it clearly suggests the need for a rethink and a recalibration of our transport spending. At the moment, we live in one of the most car-dependent countries in the western world, yet we live on a very congested island. As has been mentioned, our physical infrastructure is limited, and none of us would want to see our beautiful British countryside built over with more road. We need to be careful in how we use our scarce national resources and land.

I absolutely appreciate the good point made about the widening of the M6. There are real limits to motorway widening and changes to the road network for greater efficiency. A greater emphasis on other modes of transport is needed, particularly given the common sense point that one bus could take 30 cars off the road, while one train could take hundreds off the road. Then, drivers who really need to get from A to B by car—perhaps they have a delivery business or must take an unusual route—could use the road space more effectively. That would also produce the huge benefit of tackling pollution.

We need to reshape our policy priorities and place less emphasis on road travel by car and more emphasis on public transport. The Minister is a very thoughtful member of the Government—as is her colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, George Freeman, for whom she is standing in—and is only too familiar with the issue of bus travel because we have often discussed it in the past. I urge her to push for more emphasis on buses, which, as has been said, are the main means of commuting—far more than trains—for most people. Buses provide services to many people without cars and to older people and children who may not have access to the family car.

I hope there will be a wider rethink and a move away from car-dependent development, car-based policy and large investment in new A-roads—which take cars from one congested city centre, such as Stoke, to another and do not solve our problems—and towards a greater emphasis on rail and buses. I will outline further some possible policy solutions that may help.

Members from Staffordshire are absolutely right to highlight local problems, but they are part of a wider national picture caused by the decline of bus services across the UK. In England, there has been a 45% cut in bus services since 2010 because of the reduction in subsidies for some services. The right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands articulated in particular the severe problem in rural areas, which the Government must consider. Suburban areas are also part of the national picture. In my constituency, routes were affected by cuts to subsidies, and I have had to campaign for that subsidy to be maintained as local authorities face great austerity.

The huge rise in the cost of bus travel is also significant, given that car travel has effectively become cheaper because of the reduction in fuel tax. Arguably, central Government are making the wrong choices. As Government Members opposite articulated so well, the net effect of that policy is to create more traffic in congested centres and nearby market towns and to make it harder for people in rural areas to get to those towns. I hope there will be a rethink on the emphasis placed on car travel as opposed to buses.

We should also consider the current challenges for rail travellers. Travel by rail has become more difficult for many. The cost has risen by about 30% in the past few years and there have been notable problems on parts of the network. I fully understand that the Minister is not responsible for that part of the transport network, but I am sure that she and hon. Members will remember the considerable problems with Northern Rail. In my part of the country, the huge disruption on South Western Railway and other services has caused a great deal of difficulty for many residents. As the Government bed in, I hope they will also look at the relative lack of emphasis placed on rail travel, which, as other hon. Members have articulated so well, takes pressure of roads and allows those who have to drive to do so.

As with bus travel, another part of the solution is to take services back into public ownership. It is interesting that the Minister is smiling rather wryly, because the Department may be about to announce renationalisation programmes for two particular companies whose franchises have failed. The whole system is in crisis and, as the Minister knows only too well, that is very expensive. Bringing those franchises back into public ownership could result in considerable savings for the taxpayer. We estimate that about £1 billion would be saved by bringing all rail services back into public ownership. Nevertheless, bringing back even one or two could result in money that could be better used in other ways on the network.

I will highlight potential policy change for bus travel. Government Members have wisely pointed out the benefit of bus travel as a more effective means for residents to get around, and for rural residents to get into, city centres. I urge the Minister to consider giving all local authorities the power to franchise. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South rightly talked about the enhanced partnership scheme that he and his local authority are trying to develop. If he, as a thoughtful Member of Parliament, really wants to achieve the desired service levels with sensitivity to local needs, I urge him to go further and look at the model of franchising. At present, that may only be used in cities with a Mayor. The Minister is nodding thoughtfully. I hope that she and her colleagues will consider allowing all local authorities to franchise bus services. Stoke residents clearly wish to go in the direction of better, more integrated services that are linked to their local needs. Their local authority wants that, too, so perhaps that is how to improve the situation.

As part of the mix, I strongly recommend the municipal model. Towns and cities with municipal bus services still have a far greater level of bus patronage. My home town of Reading—sadly, we are a borough, not a city, but we have a conurbation of 250,000 people, which is not so dissimilar to large cities in the midlands—has a far greater level of bus patronage than other comparable towns and cities. The same is true of Nottingham. We even have night buses in Reading, and the services on one route run every seven minutes. That can happen because the company, though an independent body, is council-owned. It makes a small profit, and its approach is based on the service needs of the local community.

There is a lot to be said for the municipal approach, and I hope that the Minister, who is becoming only too aware of bus services around the country, will look again at it now that she has been brought back into Government. In particular, she should consider the most successful firms and how they have developed and are of benefit to their communities and their wider rural hinterland. In my own area, Reading Buses runs services as far as London in one direction, and to Henley-on-Thames, Newbury and various other towns in the county. Equally, in Nottingham the service has a wide footprint, and many rural residents beyond the city benefit. The municipal model is worth considering.

I also strongly recommend more capital investment in bus priority measures. I can well believe the issues in Stoke city centre described by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. That is a common problem around the country. A lot of evidence shows that, where services have been successful, such measures have been part of the picture.

I will make one more point about rail. I strongly appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern to restore branch lines in the Stoke area, but it is worth considering the emphasis on both branch and mainline services. There has been a great deal of discussion and debate about High Speed 2, but it remains a clearly thought-through programme which, despite some management challenges and cost issues, could stimulate huge economic regeneration for cities around the country, in particular in the midlands and the north.

I thank the Minister for listening patiently to my various points about bus services. I appreciate Members’ desire to improve services in their area, and I urge Ministers to rethink Government policy.