Members are very welcome and are of course aware that the social distancing rules no longer apply. They are no longer in operation. Members attending physically should clean their spaces when they arrive and when they leave. I think that is all I have to announce. It gives me great pleasure to call Karen Bradley to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered reopening the Stoke-Leek line.
Or, as I like to call it, the Leek-Stoke line.
This is a first for me. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I know you are an impeccable Chair and your timing is even more impeccable, so I am delighted to serve under you. I am not sure whether you have visited the Staffordshire Moorlands. It is very much like the constituency that you represent—a beautiful rural area. It has amazing scenery, lots of great dairy farms, which you will understand, and some great tourist attractions, although, unlike the Giant’s Causeway, we have Alton Towers.
Many people come to visit the Staffordshire Moorlands. They come to see our amazing scenery. The Roaches, for example, is a place that people travel to from all over the world to do rock climbing and just to observe the views; from there it is possible to see lots of different counties—I think I once counted 16 of them—and all the way to Snowdonia. We cannot quite see the Isle of Man or Northern Ireland, but we can see into Wales.
We have the Manifold Valley, the beautiful Thor’s Cave, and a bit of Dovedale, which is also one of the great tourist attractions. As well as Alton Towers, we have the Peak Wildlife Park and Biddulph Grange Garden—beautiful places that people come to visit. We have amazing hospitality venues such as the Lazy Trout in Meerbrook, the Yew Tree at Cauldon, the Stafford Arms at Bagnall, and the Auctioneers—a community-run pub in Caverswall that I helped the community to buy and is a fantastic place to visit. We have wonderful independent shops in all our towns and villages, but in Leek we are very proud of our “Totally Locally” campaign and our local markets. We have a heritage railway in the Churnet Valley railway. We have so much to offer.
The question one might ask when looking at the map and seeing those wonderful attractions is, “How on earth can I get there?” I am afraid to say that unless someone has a car it is a struggle. Last summer—we are seeing it again at the moment—the villages of the Staffordshire Moorlands were totally overwhelmed with traffic; we got to the point where emergency vehicles could not get through. Villagers felt like prisoners in their own homes because of the cars that were parked, and there is simply no other way to visit the Moorlands than by car.
We have a fantastic mainline station only a few miles away in Stoke-on-Trent; the same line runs on to Macclesfield, of course. The train from Euston to Stoke takes one hour and 24 minutes when we are not on a reduced timetable as we are at the moment. If I can make a plea to Avanti rail: we need two trains an hour to Stoke-on-Trent as soon as possible, because it really is not working at the moment with only one an hour.
We have some buses, but I am afraid they are an endangered species. They are very difficult to find. If someone does find a bus, they might be able to travel into the Moorlands, but it is not easy. If someone gets to Stoke train station with a view to visiting Alton Towers, which puts on special buses, or the Roaches, the Manifold Valley or any of the other great attractions, they find that the only way to get public transport is to walk about a mile and a half to Hanley where the bus station is—because, of course, the bus station is not in the same place as the train station in Stoke-on-Trent. That person would then have to wait for a bus that is usually hourly. Perhaps they might be lucky and the buses might be every half hour, but it is not easy and it takes a significant amount of time to get to the Staffordshire Moorlands.
Even if someone can get to Stoke-on-Trent station by taking a taxi or finding a very amenable friend to give them a lift, to get from the station to Leek—which is where I live: the centre of the constituency—they could drive along the main Leek road, which is the A52, the A5009 and the A53. To do so means travelling through the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) before reaching the Staffordshire Moorlands.
This route passes through some amazing parts of the city: Joiners Square, Abbey Hulton, Milton, then entering Stockton Brook and then on through Endon, Longsdon, and finally into Leek. The problem is that it is a single-lane carriageway. Actually, there is not a dual carriageway anywhere in the Staffordshire Moorlands constituency. One cannot legally go faster than 60 miles an hour, even though some motorcyclists believe otherwise. It is a genuinely beautiful route, which runs along a disused railway line. It is absolutely stunning, but it is a very slow road.
Alternatively, there is the A520, taking a route through the constituency of my hon. Friend Jack Brereton and then on to the Moorlands. That goes through Fenton and Longton, Weston Coyney and Meir, to Cellarhead, Wetley Rocks, Cheddleton, Leekbrook and then into Leek. All of these places are beautiful, ancient villages; they do not have capacity to make the road any wider. On visiting Wetley Rocks, one discovers it really is rocks, driving along the edge of the cliff, so there is nowhere to go to extend that road.
So I ask: what can we do? If you are lucky, Mr Paisley, you might find you could get off the train at Stoke and I would be waiting for you with my car, because I would be delighted to give you a lift to Leek—obviously socially distanced with appropriate facemasks and so on. If we were lucky, it could take about 30 minutes. However, I must say that I have driven from Stoke-on-Trent station back to my home in Leek, and it has taken over an hour and a half. During rush hour, those two A roads that are the main roads into Leek from the city are absolutely full. They happen, at the moment, to have an enormous number of roadworks on them as well, which does not help, but in normal times they are still absolutely full. There are some very difficult junctions on them, particularly the junction at Endon going up to Clay Lake and Brown Edge and on the A520. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South and I both know about the issues around the Advanced Proteins site and the fact that we have an awful lot of very heavy vehicles travelling along that road and turning into the plant, causing congestion.
It really is not an easy journey, and it is getting harder. Given the volume of traffic and the demand for journeys between the Moorlands and the city, I do not see that it is going to improve any time soon, and the fact is that the Moorlands is missing out on the advantages of being only a few miles from the west coast main line. It is missing out on the opportunities that the Government’s investment in Stoke-on-Trent as part of the levelling-up agenda is bringing to the area, because people simply cannot rely on being able to work or live in the Moorlands and commute to the city given that the commute is so unreliable. We really do need an alternative.
There are two alternatives, and the debate title gives us a clue about what one of them is. There is another one, however, and it is that we could use the canals. We have a fantastic canal system built by James Brindley for the purposes of Wedgwood, to bring the raw materials from the Moorlands into the city where the potteries were founded in Burslem—the mother of the potteries in my hon. Friend for Stoke-on-Trent North’s constituency —but also around the whole city.
There are still fantastic potteries in the city, but it was the canals that made that possible. I love being on the canal—it is a really wonderful day out—but I think we would agree that it is probably not a good alternative for commuting into the city, given the speed at which one could travel. That then leaves us with one remaining alternative: to reopen the railway line between Leek and Stoke-on-Trent that closed as a victim of the Beeching cuts. When it closed it was probably not very well used, but I know now that the demand is there, and that people want to get back to being able to commute into the city from the Staffordshire Moorlands. Not only do we not have a dual carriageway, but we do not have a mainline train line running through the constituency. It would be wonderful to bring these things back.
This could be a fantastic clean, green alternative to roads. Residents live very close to the road, with houses along the whole way. My hon. Friends from the city will describe the experiences of their constituents who live alongside those roads, and the pollution and noise they suffer. We have this alternative; the line is there. Only a couple of weeks ago, the four of us here—myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central, for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Stoke-on-Trent South—together with the leader of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, Councillor Sybil Ralphs MBE, visited where the line travels between the Moorlands and the city at Stockton Brook. The line and track bed are there and we stood on them. There is quite a lot of weed but the line is there; it can be reopened. We were pleased to be there and see for ourselves that that could be done.
A bid has gone in to the Restoring Your Railways Fund. The bid is led by Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and Councillor Sybil Ralphs, and is supported by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and its leader Councillor Abi Brown. We have the support of the local enterprise partnership, Staffordshire County Council, North Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, the Peak District national park, local businesses and the key partner, the Churnet Valley railway. As I mentioned earlier, we have this wonderful heritage railway in the Moorlands, which has kept the track going for pleasure visits around the Moorlands on its steam trains. That heritage railway, with its use of the line, is a really important part of the bid.
I know the Minister is stepping in for my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris, who has sent his apologies. It is wonderful, though, to see the Minister in her place. I am hoping she will say that she will put personal endeavour into pushing this bid through. The bid has been submitted and we want to ensure that we get the funding we need, so that we can explore the possibilities.
We can see what could be achieved. We can see what the opportunities are for passenger services. That might be light rail; it might be different from what was envisaged when people closed the line—what it looked like then and what it might look like today. We want to see what the possibilities are for freight on the line, but we need to have that time and the expertise of officials at the Department for Transport to work with, to explore what is possible.
The line could not only go to Leek, but the line that the heritage railway uses now—to Froghall, through Cheddleton and Consall—could be used. That line goes to the village of Alton, where Alton Towers is. We have one of the largest cement plants in the UK at Cauldon, which is also the line used by the heritage railway. There are real opportunities to get freight off the road and on to the railway line.
In conclusion, I say to the Minister that all we want is a chance to see what is possible. I know she will use her best endeavours to support us on this. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friends, who are all fully behind this bid.
I thank Karen Bradley for moving that motion and painting such a pretty picture postcard and advertisement for the Staffordshire Moorlands. She probably won the record for name-checking every single village in a constituency. If Members wish to remove their jackets, please feel free to do so because it is stifling in this room today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley on securing this excellent debate. I also welcome my hon. Friend Maggie Throup to her first time responding on behalf of the Government. I thank Ministers and the Department for Transport for the support they have given so far. The Restoring Your Railways Fund has been a model of excellence and innovation, about which the Government should be incredibly proud. Ministers and civil servants across Government should pay great heed to it in developing future similar schemes.
There is a clear need for reopening the Stoke-Leek line. Our roads are full and one in three households in Stoke-on-Trent has no access to a car; in some wards, it is as high as 40%. For access to skills and jobs, this severely limits aspirations and opportunities. The situation is made worse by the fact that our bus services have declined by around a third in the last decade. Congestion and air pollution have only become worse.
Additionally, there are no direct bus links between Leek and Stoke station, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands described, nor do they directly serve Fenton. Operators have said that the main reasons for bus decline are the challenges faced by running a reliable service, given how congested some of our roads are. In many cases, they now run fewer services during peak hours than during the rest of the day, because they just get stuck in the congestion.
Our roads are operating well above capacity and where others may have seen recent improvements, with more people working from home, our local manufacturing, distribution and retail industries mean congestion is almost back to normal levels. Victoria Road in Fenton Manor is notorious for sitting traffic and it is under ministerial directions to improve on the significant breaches of air quality limits, including nitrogen dioxide levels. I fully support the city council in its efforts to address that; a proposal was submitted recently to Ministers.
Better public transport will also be a key part of this. Fenton once had two stations: Fenton Manor was lost in 1956 and Fenton station on the Crewe-Derby line closed in 1961. Those were the bad old days of the north Staffordshire railways decline, exacerbated by industrial decline. Where many parts of the country have seen local stations and lines return since that axe fell, there is a great chasm in north Staffordshire where nothing has reopened. In fact, it got worse with the west coast upgrade, with services removed from Wedgwood and Barlaston, and Etruria closed entirely to shave off just a few minutes. I am pleased to support my hon. Friend Jo Gideon in her bid to reopen Etruria station.
Improving our local public transport, both rail and bus, is absolutely vital. New employment and housing growth cannot be accommodated within the constraints of current car-focused networks. We are one of the fastest growing cities: housing development numbers are way above target, with more than the average London borough, and 99% are on brownfield land.
Stoke-on-Trent is on the up and the reindustrialisation of the local economy over the last decade needs an efficient and comprehensive transport network. That includes options for rail. Reopening the Stoke-Leek line would not be happening in a vacuum. Work is under way to deliver on the Transforming Cities Fund, improving local bus flows, revitalising Longton station and creating a transport hub, with Stoke station connected by a dedicated last-mile bus corridor through the city centre.
The reopening of Meir station, east of Longton, which was lost under the Beeching Act—something that I have championed—is an advanced project under the Restoring Your Railways Fund. We are actively seeking to reopen a station, also lost under Beeching, to serve Trentham. By delivering all these priorities, we can build that critical rail mass for north Staffordshire to make public transport a much more viable option, particularly with the development of integrated ticketing.
Employers, educators and providers right along the line all support the benefits that would come through reopening the line, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands suggested. A station at Fenton Manor would be vital to serve many of my constituents. St Peter’s Academy and the main Fenton Manor sports complex would be directly served by a station at Fenton Manor. Fenton Park would also be within easy walking distance. Most importantly, increased numbers of Fenton residents would have easy access to rail, opening up employment, education and leisure opportunities, including the Moorlands countryside, as my right hon. Friend eloquently described.
Equally, this would plug a whole number of communities along the line directly into proposed High Speed 2 services feeding Stoke station and beyond. Public transport journeys between Fenton Manor and Leek would plummet from 55 minutes to around 18 minutes, and fall from 20 minutes to just three minutes between Fenton Manor and Stoke station. Properly integrated with the bus network, with funding that we also hope to secure through the Bus Back Better Fund, journey time savings from reopening the line could be felt much more widely across the whole of north Staffordshire. It could halve public transport journeys across my constituency alone. Only through enhancing public transport will we fully realise the benefits of HS2. The alternative is that a journey for just the final few miles will end up taking longer than the entire HS2 journey.
By more than halving journey times—potentially, more than two thirds at peak times—the real benefits of enhanced transport connectivity can be fully realised. By freeing up some of the road capacity, there will be advantages for motorists, too, and more reliable buses attracting people back on to public transport. It is also worth noting that single-stop rail travel between local stations in Stoke-on-Trent is often considerably cheaper than single-journey bus travel.
To conclude, reopening the Stoke-Leek line is a highly realistic option for levelling up opportunities in one of the most deprived cities in the entire country. It would reconnect communities and radically reduce journey times. Crucially, it would help us to reach a critical mass of public transport provision that we currently lack. I hope that our bid to explore reopening in detail is won and that the Government support our proposals fully.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour and right hon. Friend Karen Bradley on securing this important debate. We are hearing the hymn of us all singing to the same tune. Ultimately, it is so important for the connectivity of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire Moorlands and north Staffordshire that we see not just the Stoke-to-Leek line, but the Meir station bid, which is led by my hon. Friend Jack Brereton, and the Etruria station bid put in by my hon. Friend Jo Gideon. I am proud to be a co-signatory and co-supporter of the Stoke toLeek line.
It looks like we want all the sweeties from the jar, but we are saying that Stoke-on-Trent and the Staffordshire Moorlands have been long overlooked. My right hon. Friend lives in Leek, so she knows that it is one of the largest towns in the country, at 21,000 residents, and yet one of the only towns of that size that does not have a rail station in it, which is utterly bizarre in itself.
If we are ever to hit net zero, which is an important agenda that we should be aiming for, there have to be public transport options to enable people no longer to have to use the car. If we are to allow people from Stoke-on-Trent opportunities to work at, maybe, one day in the future, Alton Towers, which supports the bid and has discussed the potential of linking the line to its theme park at a later date, there is a long-term benefit for tourism opportunities. Alton Towers gets about 2.1 million visitors directly and, pre-covid-19 pandemic, Stoke-on-Trent city received about 6 million visitors a year. The problem for Stoke-on-Trent, however, is that 5.7 million to 5.8 million of them were day visitors.
A public transport network can link the Peak national park and, potentially, Alton Towers. It can connect our fantastic cities, so people could visit the fantastic and award-winning Gladstone Pottery Museum in the south or the mightily superior Middleport Pottery museum up in Middleport, where shows such as “Peaky Blinders” and “The Great Pottery Throwdown” have been filmed. We can then start to say to people that tourism is more than just a day visit to the north of Staffordshire; it becomes longer term and creates more jobs. Given that tourism is our second largest employer in the whole of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent combined, it is an important market. Let us not forget that the pandemic has made it so difficult for that sector, so better connectivity can only help us bounce back quicker in those types of industries.
I am proud to serve Stoke-on-Trent, North. We have fantastic schools, for example, such as the Excel Academy in Sneyd Green, a council ward I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. A railway line could link that closely, as it could the Birches Head Academy in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Parents would not have to go on already congested roads and the children would have an opportunity to access the city and to get to and from school, pretty much door to door, by the railway network.
That would also mean that the people of Leek and of Milton—a fantastic little village, which again I share my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central—could think about getting to and from Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College, with its UK-leading digital T-levels, and Staffordshire University, which is the UK leader in video games technology. We, the Stoke-on-Trent MPs, want to make Silicon Stoke our real agenda. With our gigabit broadband already in the ground, and with those students, better connectivity will create business opportunities.
There are hectares of brownfield land along that track, waiting to be unlocked, but that requires the railway line back open and the critical rail mass back within north Staffordshire. By doing that, we are more than happy to play our part in meeting the Government’s housing targets.
In Stoke-on-Trent, we are planning for around 14,000 new homes, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has already said, we are well above our targets. We are building—there are cranes going up everywhere—and we have put in some fantastic levelling-up fund bids to focus on regenerating one of the largest city centre regeneration sites in the west midlands, the East-West Precinct, as it is known. We have also had the fantastic opportunity to partner with Capital & Centric, which has put in £55 million of private sector investment, and with the gap funding from the levelling-up fund, we will unlock hotel space, office space and homes right by Stoke-on-Trent railway station. We also hope that the Home Office will make that location their new HQ for the 560 new jobs that the Stoke-on-Trent MPs and Councillor Abi Brown have secured as part of the Places for Growth programme run from the Cabinet Office.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South always uses this line, and I absolutely love it: getting to Stoke-on-Trent is not the problem. We have the M6, the A50 and the A500, we have the west coast main line, and we have HS2 with the Handsacre link coming, so getting to us is not the issue. Getting around the city is the problem: getting around north Staffordshire is where the problems lie, and when roads such as the A50 and the A500 are at 110% capacity despite the fact that 30% of the people of Stoke-on-Trent do not have access to a private vehicle, there is clearly a big gap in the market for public transport.
We would love to be able to say that we just want the railways, but we need buses as well, because we have had a massive reduction in our bus usage over the past decade, from 15 million to 9.3 million journeys. This reduction means that people in Brindley Ford, which I represent, in Great Chell and Packmoor, which is superbly represented by Councillor Janine Bridges, in Milton, which used to be represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South and is now represented by Councillor Dave Evans, Councillor James Smith and Councillor Carl Edwards, and in other remote parts of the constituency cannot get to and from, or around, the city. We seem to have bus links that do not link up our main retail units, our main business parks, and our main hubs of transport and the city centre. That means that bus fares have become too expensive, and that means that people are not using the buses, as I said. That is why I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we do not just want rail: we need to “bus back better” if we are ever truly going to make sure that we deliver for our constituents in Stoke-on-Trent.
I want to moan a bit about the roads as well, because if we do not get this line, I will be banging on the door of the Department for Transport relentlessly to talk about the funding formula for national roads. I represent Kidsgrove and Talke, which is part of Staffordshire County Council, so I am sure that Councillor Alan White and maybe even my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands will not thank me for this, but large county areas with lots of minor roads, for example, will always benefit from a larger pool of funding when it comes to fixing potholes or resurfacing our roads. The city of Stoke-on-Trent simply does not get its fair share.
I was very happy to have a Westminster Hall debate on this issue, because it is something that my hon. Friends from Stoke-on-Trent have raised time and time again. We want to fix our roads, but we need more money, and the funding formula cannot just be based on mileage of road: it has to take in the usage of roads and the congestion on those roads. If we did that, Stoke-on-Trent would get a fairer share of the money. We are not asking for a U-turn, with Staffordshire Moorlands getting nothing and Stoke getting everything. We are asking for a slightly bigger slice of the cake. We have the fantastic JCB Pothole Pro machine going around our city now. We are the first local authority in the country to procure that machine, which fixes potholes in half the time and at half the cost to the taxpayer, and we are already seeing the benefits in Councillor Abi Brown’s ward, where it is being trialled. However, ultimately, we need more money.
Going back to the important reason why we are here, this is not just about connectivity: it is about the economic opportunity that the Stoke-to-Leek line brings. As I say, the village of Milton has one of the finest high streets I have ever seen. It is a beautiful traditional village, with a local butcher, local nail salon, local card and balloon suppliers, local florist and local café—The Teapot At Milton, which I frequent too often, hence the size of the gut. This is the issue: we have that beautiful little village, but not as many people are accessing it as we would want, because the problem is that parking becomes difficult. It is a very narrow high street, so having the railway line would mean that people from Leek could come and experience the benefits of Milton, just like the people of Milton would go to Leek to experience the benefits there. There are some fantastic markets in the Staffordshire Moorlands that many of my residents would want to access. If this railway line came back, they might even set up a second market in market towns such as Burslem. That town has a market already—Our Burslem—but that could be expanded with a Sunday farmer’s market, depending on what happens in the area.
We want to make sure that at the end of the day, we do not get left behind or forgotten about. We have already seen fantastic Government commitment: we have received £29 million through the Transforming Cities fund and £800,000 for upgrading our bus network, so that 15 of our old buses will become brand new and the rest are going to have newer engines, which means we can improve our local air quality. I have no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central will mention that in her speech, because she has been a doughty champion on the issue for the city and for her constituents.
Alongside that pot of money, we must make sure that we have Meir station open, get Etruria station open and open the Stoke-Leek line, which has the unanimous support of all four Members of Parliament here today, the fantastic leader of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, Sybil Ralphs, the fantastic council leader, Councillor Abi Brown, the Staffordshire local enterprise partnership, the city centre business improvement district, local schools and numerous parish councils from the numerous villages in Staffordshire Moorlands—I cannot bear to name them all, as I might forget some.
There is support not just from national representatives, and at local level with local government, but on the ground, from local schools and businesses. I hope we will have the opportunity to get the £50,000 we need to top up the money provided by the city council and Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and that we can then go away, put a really good business case together and, by all means, allow the Department for Transport to decide whether this is a project that is worth investing in in the long term.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley on securing this debate. Members may think that, having pulled the graveyard slot, there would not be anything to add—quite frankly, I think we have named every village along the line, every tea room and every pub— but I do have a few things to say.
Reopening the Stoke-Leek line is a key need in a series of public transport projects that will level up opportunity for deprived communities across central Stoke-on-Trent. Like my colleagues today, I want to see the reopening of the stations that were lost when the line closed to passenger traffic in 1956. In the area of the old Bucknall and Northwood station, an interchange is possible with the existing bus routes westwards into Hanley for the city centre and eastwards to Bentilee, Townsend and the full length of Werrington Road.
In addition, I want to see a new station convenient for Abbey Hulton and Birches Head and their significant residential estates that were never served by the old line. Such a station could serve Birches Head Academy, Abbey Hulton medical centre, Abbey Hulton football club and the remains of Abbey Hulton itself. Getting the location right needs investigation and the Restoring Your Railway fund is an excellent means of exploring the necessary detail—so long as we win the bid. Reopening the Stoke-Leek line is entirely complementary to reopening Etruria station, too. If we are to reach a critical rail mass for Stoke-on-Trent, we need to win both bids and share commissioning efficiencies for the necessary research.
The current public transport journey time from Leek to Etruria would easily be halved from an hour-plus to perhaps as little as 25 minutes. In a city with chronic congestion and ministerial directions on air quality at both Etruria and Fenton, as my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis said, we simply cannot afford to leave the Stoke-Leek line mothballed. It needs to be open to passenger use.
A third of households are carless, buses struggle to be reliable in congestion, and our growing economy is being held back. Stoke-on-Trent is on the up, but the opportunities that brings must be accessible to many more communities across the city, including those who suffer from the urban splintering caused by what we know locally as the D road.
Reopening the Stoke-Leek line, along with Etruria, will create a U-shape around the city centre. The Transforming Cities fund is already establishing a fast corridor from Stoke station to the south of the city centre. Etruria would establish one from the west and a Stoke-Leek line station at Bucknall Park would establish one to the east. When we look at the map, the Stoke-Leek line joining the Stoke-Crewe line around the city centre looks strikingly like the wires around a bullseye on a dartboard.
Staffordshire University and Staffordshire sixth form college are both solid supporters of reopening the line for pupil and staff use. I know from the vice-chancellor that some university students had to drop out because of transport difficulties, which is an unnecessary tragedy, given that the university is pretty much right next to Stoke-on-Trent railway station. Given the increasing importance of the university and the apprenticeship training centre for local businesses, connectivity to the university quarter is vital to many more young people than the traditional academic student. I very much hope that Stoke College and the Goodwin engineering training school will also be more accessible to left-behind communities.
We struggle with the current inadequate public transport system. The Transforming Cities fund is a great start, but it cannot be the end. I do understand that there are some local concerns about noise from services and the loss of what might be seen as a green corridor—the walking route. But the line is a mothballed rail line, not a pedestrian link. It is so dangerous at Abbey Hulton that the bridge over Leek Road is completely fenced off. We are establishing a new green corridor through the city, with the rewilding of the River Trent, that is accessible to pedestrians, which we must continue to pursue. There is no alternative train or light rail route to Leek, but there are alternatives for better cycling and pedestrian routes.
For far too long, Stoke-on-Trent has had a public transport system in decline. It was not just Beeching; in fact, Etruria was closed by the last Labour Government. What we have now is a real chance to look properly at how to reverse that. It will level up life chances and make Stoke-on-Trent an even better place to live, visit, study and work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate Karen Bradley on securing today’s debate. As we heard from all Members, there is plainly a great deal of local support for reopening and re-imagining the Stoke-Leek rail line. What was once constructed to carry limestone, cement and other freight should now be seen as a potential part of a modern, clean and green post-carbon railway. That makes the decision by Government to turn down the bids for funds from the Restoring Your Railway fund for even more frustrating and perplexing. No wonder local MPs and councillors are so exercised on behalf of their constituents, and campaigners are so vocal.
Ministers have simply got this wrong; if they do not allow the rail line to happen, it will be to the detriment of the local area and, indeed, the wider region. We have heard the benefits for local businesses, communities and places such as Norton, Stockton Brook and Milton. We all know that a new railway would help cut carbon emissions and reduce the number of lorries on local roads—particularly the aforementioned A53, A520, A52 and A523—and benefit the communities living along those A roads. It would create new opportunities for local businesses in Stoke, Leek and across north Staffordshire. The reopening would create new jobs in construction and the supply chain.
Most of all, it would tackle social exclusion, open new labour markets and help people in the area travel for work and leisure, particularly since, as was mentioned by Jack Brereton, 30% of local people do not own a car. In some areas of Stoke-on Trent, that percentage is even higher. The railway remains one of the safest, cleanest and most convenient ways to travel.
By creating the Restoring Your Railway fund, the Government have unfortunately set community against community, creating a forced competition with winners and losers. Worst of all, they have abdicated their responsibility for a strategic national plan to reopen mothballed railway lines. We need a strategic plan, not a competition. The Campaign for Better Transport has shown through its research that huge social and economic benefits would accrue from a strategic approach.
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s full-hearted support, and I hope it puts even more pressure on the Government, but I firmly disagree with the idea that competition is bad. It was entirely appropriate for the Government to make us submit a good bid and to make sure that the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed. Ultimately, that is to make sure we are being serious. We could end up getting a very large amount of funding from the Government, and at the end of the day it is Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands taxpayers’ money, so we need to ensure it is spent appropriately and delivers for them in the long term. While we are here enjoying discussing what we want from the Stoke to Leek line, we need to make sure it is economically viable in the long term.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but we must agree to disagree on this issue. Although it is okay to have competition in certain arenas, in this arena what is required is a national strategic policy. As we have seen, in parts of our country there have been accusations of favouritism and of politics coming into play, rather than an overarching policy that would benefit our country.
The Campaign for Better Transport has shown through its research that huge social and economic benefits would accrue from a national strategic approach. It points out that adding 343 miles to the network, including 166 miles of reopened route, would create 72 new stations and 20 million new journeys, bring half a million people within walking distance of a station, create 6,500 new jobs, serve more than 100 of the most disadvantaged wards in the country, enhance air quality, cut carbon, and generate an annual gross value added of between £155 million and £245 million, as well as indirect benefits to our economy.
So many communities, like the ones in north Staffs, are crying out for this kind of investment. We must never lose sight of the need for new freight lines, as the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands said, as well as passenger lines. According to the International Energy Agency, rail uses as much as 90% less energy than road transport per unit of freight, yet the Government have set a high bar of financial sustainability, with predicted fair income underwritten by the scheme sponsor.
Network Rail’s governance for railway investment projects is conservative in its approach, according to the Campaign for Better Transport. That combination of factors explains why progress has been so slow. Ministers’ attempts to expedite projects—in particular, the rail network enhancement plan—contains the fatal design flaw that each scheme is viewed through the lens of local demand, not an overarching strategic approach to meet our national needs. It feels like road is still the Government’s favourite, and rail is still the runner up.
I congratulate the campaigners for the Stoke to Leek line, who have come so far. I appeal to Ministers to clear the leaves off the line and let the people of north Staffs have the railway, but let us be equally ambitious for all communities campaigning for reopened lines. Let us finally bury the Beeching axe. Let us offer a vision of local lines with well-lit, safe railway stations with beautiful architecture, full access for people with disabilities, sustainable energy use and integration with cycling, walking, trams and buses. Let us offer services that are frequent, convenient and on time, and digital ticketing that reflects the new realities of when and how often people want to travel—one national railway, owned by the people and viewed as a vital national asset.
To begin, I would like to pass on the apologies of the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris, who had planned to attend this debate. He is self-isolating after being pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app and asked me to stand in. I am delighted to have been asked to respond, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley on securing this debate on the proposals for reopening the Stoke-Leek line—or, as she said, the Leek-Stoke line. I thank all Members who contributed. My right hon. Friend is a committed advocate of this scheme, alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who have spoken passionately with one voice in today’s debate. Their collective campaigning to reinstate the Stoke-Leek line is second to none. I am sure the description that my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands gave of her constituency will definitely have put it at the top of the tourist map for those who are listening to the debate. I also pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members who have sponsored applications to restore rail lines and stations in their own constituencies. I know just how much these schemes mean for local communities. Those Members are great advocates for the restoration of their railways.
This Government are committed to levelling up the country, and a strong, effective railway is central to that ambition. As part of that levelling-up agenda, in January 2020 the Government pledged £500 million for the Restoring Your Railways programme to deliver on our manifesto commitment to start reopening lines and stations. This investment will reconnect smaller communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education. The Beeching report led to the closure of one third of our railway network—2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of track were identified for closure. Many places that lost their railway connection have simply never recovered. For the towns and villages left isolated and forgotten by the Beeching cuts, restoring a railway line or station has the potential to revitalise the community. It breathes new life into our high streets, drives investment in businesses and housing and opens new opportunities for work and education. Ilkeston station, in my constituency, which reopened in 2017 after more than 50 years of closure, is a proven example of this positive impact.
It was a long-fought battle, like that which my right hon. and hon. Friends in the room are fighting.
More broadly, investing in transport links is essential to levelling up access to opportunities across the whole country, ensuring that our regions are better connected, local economies flourish and more than half a century of isolation is undone. By building back with a real focus on better connections and supporting left-behind communities, we are delivering our promise to level up this country, as set out last week by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
The Restoring Your Railways Fund has three parts, with part of the £500 million fund allocated to the ideas fund. Aimed at early-stage proposals, the ideas fund is helping communities to develop ideas to restore railway lines and stations across England and Wales. These proposals are led by the affected communities, supported by their local Member or Members of this House, giving them an opportunity to make the case for how the railway can transform their area. The Department is funding 75% of the study costs of successful proposals, up to a maximum of £50,000. Over the first two rounds of the ideas fund, 25 promising schemes across England and Wales have been awarded up to £50,000 in development funding to help them get to the strategic outline business case stage.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands has taken advantage of this opportunity and submitted a proposal to restore rail services between Stoke and Leek—or between Leek and Stoke—to the first round of the ideas fund in spring 2020. While the bid had the potential to deliver benefits, it was not successful at that time, and the rail Minister wrote to the right hon. and hon. Members who sponsored the bid to inform them of the outcome. Feedback on the bid was provided at the same time, setting out why it had not quite made it in that round of funding and what could be done to further strengthen the proposals. I know that the rail Minister was therefore pleased that earlier this year—I think it was on
As my right hon. Friend explained, the proposal details the many benefits that restoring the Stoke-Leek line would bring to the area—she was so graphic earlier about all the benefits—including providing residents of Leek with direct access to education and employment opportunities in Stoke-on-Trent and the opening up of Staffordshire Moorlands to the tourist trade. The assessment process for those bids is currently under way. The Department expects to announce outcomes over the summer. Decisions on bids are made by an expert panel, which the rail Minister chairs. It is informed by analysis from the Department for Transport, technical advisers and Network Rail. The standard of the applications is, as ever, very high.
In nearby Meir, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, a proposal to reopen the railway station has already been successful in the ideas fund. This scheme used the funding awarded to create a strategic outline business case, which the Department will be considering soon. If delivered, the scheme would reconnect the people of Meir to the rail network for the first time since 1966, giving them access to new educational and economic opportunities, making new housing developments in certain areas viable and levelling up a region that suffers from poor productivity relative to the rest of the UK.
Advance proposals for the second part of the £500 million Restoring Your Railways Fund are being used to accelerate the development of closed lines and stations that are already being considered for restoration and have existing business cases. As a result, certain reopened railways will be connecting commuters again very soon, with regular passenger services set to be restored for the first time in almost 50 years by the end of 2021. The third strand of the Restoring Your Railways funding has been used to provide £32 million for a third round of the new stations fund, which is funding six new stations and providing development funding for a further two stations.
This country has a rich railway history, which puts it on the world stage, with its Victorian pioneers, its commitment to innovation and its engineering achievements. Thanks to record levels of funding, which will help us to build back better as we recover from the pandemic, we will also deliver the biggest modernisation programme to the railways for more than a century.
Of course, new rail lines are not the only way to reconnect our communities. Last week, the Prime Minister announced a £4.2 billion city region sustainable transport fund, which local leaders can spend on projects, such as new tram lines or bike lanes. The west midlands will receive a share of this fund, providing further opportunity for the constituents of my right hon. and hon. Friends to benefit from improved transport infrastructure.
In Staffordshire, we are just on the edge of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Mayor Street does a fantastic job of delivering public transport, but I want to make sure that any money does not come at the detriment of areas, such as Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands, that are not part of combined authority areas.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has put that on record, and I am sure it will be listened to and noted.
Additionally, Stoke-on-Trent has been awarded £34.5 million from the Transforming Cities Fund towards improvements at Stoke-on-Trent and Longton rail stations, new cycling and walking schemes, installation of electric charge points and upgrades to the city centre bus station. The local growth deal is also investing £121 million of transport infrastructure in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, including constructing new highway infrastructure to improve access to business and employment sites around Stoke-on-Trent, new access to the Etruria Valley enterprise area and the new Stafford western access route, which will provide an alternative route to the town centre this year. All this investment will improve transport connections for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, helping residents access new opportunities.
I conclude by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands for securing this debate and thanking my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent the area for all their thoughtful contributions. I can reassure the House that there is a tremendous amount of work being done in this area to reconnect smaller communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education. I will make it my personal commitment to ensure that the rail Minister is fully updated on the compelling case for the Stoke-Leek Leek-Stoke line, which I have heard loud and clear this afternoon.
I have really enjoyed this debate, and it has been good to hear from all the Members who would be affected positively by the reopening of the Stoke-Leek or Leek-Stoke line. I am grateful to the Minister for her words and for the support from the Opposition spokesman, Mr Dhesi.
Mr Paisley, you suggested that I had mentioned every village in my constituency. This is only an hour-long debate, and therefore I have not been able to mention them all, but they are all very important to me and they could all benefit from the Stoke-Leek line.
My hon. Friend Jo Gideon referred to some people who were worried about the reopening. I understand that some people who live along the line are concerned that there will be an adverse impact on them. That is why it is important that the funding is provided so that we can explore the implications and look at what can be done to reassure those people who are concerned, as well as helping those who are really enthusiastic.
I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that many, many people are very enthusiastic. In fact, when we had our photo opportunity in the drizzle in Stockton Brook a few weeks ago, a couple were walking their dog down the side of the canal, where the canal and the railway line up next to one another. They stopped and said, “Wow, are you looking to reopen this? I remember this line when I was a boy. I can’t tell you how exciting it would be to see this line reopen and see trains back along this line.”
It is important to note that the plan is part of a wider project. It is not just another project to be seen in isolation; it is part of all the work being done to transform the whole of north Staffordshire, including the stations at Meir and Etruria, which we all want to reopen.
My hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis spoke about day visitors. He is absolutely right: we suffer in that we have an enormous number of visitors, but they are day visitors. They do not come to stay overnight; they drive in and then drive out again. We have some fantastic places for them to stay. I put on the record that only last week, I visited the Tawny Hotel in Consall, a brand-new hotel next to the heritage railway line of Churnet valley. It is another fantastic place for people who want to visit and stay in the Staffordshire Moorlands and north Staffordshire.
The reopening could bring so many opportunities. Around the whole of north Staffordshire, the vision that the reopening of the line would be a part of is tangible, and it would be such an exciting thing to see. The Minister said that this country has a rich railway history. I want it to have a rich railway future, and I want the Stoke-Leek line to be very much part of that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered reopening the Stoke-Leek line.