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Pudsey (Transport)

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2009

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your watchful eye, Dr. McCrea. It is in the nature of Westminster Hall debates that Members take on the role of parliamentary Oliver Twists in pleading with Minsters, “Please Sir—or Madam on some occasions—can I have some more?” I regret that I do not intend to depart from that noble tradition, but I appreciate how tall an order it is in the present economic climate.

West Yorkshire has a population of 2.1 million, making it the third largest metropolitan area in England outside London. Leeds and Bradford are significant centres in their own right, and my constituency of Pudsey is positioned midway between the two. There are more than 100,000 daily commuting trips to Leeds city centre. Although the recession has led to a reduction in traffic flows, forecasts of housing and employment growth indicate that congestion will continue to worsen. Those dynamics intimately affect the communities in my constituency: they have an adverse impact on the environment, road safety and labour market accessibility for my constituents and will continue to do so unless substantial investment is made in alternatives.

Everyone has to accept that there have been substantial, real-terms increases in transport funding in the Yorkshire and Humber region under this Government, which is to be applauded. However, it remains an inescapable fact, which I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will not attempt to contradict, that the region has missed out when compared to others. For example, the latest Treasury figures show that total transport spend per head in Yorkshire and Humber is £239, compared to £826 in London. Of course, London is the nation’s capital and can be considered a special case, but Yorkshire and Humber fares less well than all other regions. For example, the north-west and the west midlands received per head £309 and £269 respectively.

It hardly requires a crystal ball to anticipate that transport will not remain unscathed in difficult future public spending decisions, but on the basis of the historical funding deficit highlighted by the Treasury figures which I have just quoted, I submit that there is a powerful argument that Yorkshire and Humber should not be further disadvantaged in comparison to other regions.

Many of my previous debates on transport, and there have been many, have focused to a great extent on bus services, so I will start by referring to them. Bus patronage across West Yorkshire is broadly stable at the moment, but the growth in concessionary travel as a result of the Government’s very welcome free English concessionary travel scheme masks a decline in fare-paying passengers. The largest bus company in Leeds, First, has reduced mileage by around 5 per cent. in 2009, which is a significant figure. The company has blamed that reduction on the recession, but the local integrated transport authority, Metro, believes that two fare increases of 8 per cent. in January and July 2008 have also had a significant adverse effect on demand.

As one of those Members who have campaigned for years with a handful of colleagues, I very much welcomed the Local Transport Act 2008, which at long last provided practical powers for local authorities to introduce bus quality contracts and protect passengers from the worst excesses of the deregulated bus system. I have said it before, will say it again and will repeat it for ever: deregulation has totally failed my constituents, just as it has failed the constituents of many other Members. Services have been chopped and changed almost at will, and where they do exist, they are often missing or late. Many of the communities in my constituency have lost their services or key transport links altogether as routes have been whittled down to a profitable core.

There is increasing concern about the large taxpayer subsidy that is paid to the bus industry for running tendered services, which I understand has increased by about £1 billion over the past five years. There is little evidence in West Yorkshire, and certainly not in my area, that we are getting true value for money, because so many of the contracts had only one tender.

Metro, like many ITAs, I suspect, will be considering whether to develop bus quality contracts as a response to the current lack of integration, and continual above-inflation fare rises and reduction in service levels. It has to be said that one of the great risks of embarking on protracted and detailed work to introduce such contracts is the stated intention of the Conservative party, often articulated by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to repeal the relevant provisions of the 2008 Act. It amazes me that the Conservatives continue to believe that deregulation has worked, because that view is not shared by anyone who depends on bus services in my constituency or, I suspect, the rest of the country.

Rail services play a vital role in supporting the social, environmental and economic interests of major cities such as Leeds. Over the past decade or so, Leeds and the three lines through my constituency have seen the highest rate of growth in rail commuting anywhere in the country. Unfortunately, inadequate investment in additional rail carriages has led to severe overcrowding problems on commuter services, examples of which are reported to me regularly by constituents.

As I said earlier, all is not doom and gloom, but, unfortunately, we are working from a low starting point. In my constituency, we have seen investment in new rolling stock on the Wharfedale line, where excellent 333-class rolling stock replaced 40-year-old, slam-door cast-offs from the south-eastern commuter belt. As a regular passenger, I used to marvel at the decrepit windows that were held in place by what appeared to be a type of Polyfilla. We have seen additional capacity recently on the Harrogate and Caldervale lines and, less recently, the £250 million upgrade of Leeds station and the refurbishment of all three stations in my constituency: New Pudsey, Horsforth and Guiseley. Following the Hatfield disaster, there was also substantial investment in maintenance and safety measures, which are largely invisible to passengers but essential to their safety and the service.

Metro continues development work on the Leeds rail growth package, which includes the introduction of two new rail stations at Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge, the former of which will definitely serve my constituents when and if it is built. I understand that the business case for the £23 million scheme has recently been re-endorsed by the region and is due to be submitted to my right hon. Friend and his colleagues at the Department for Transport shortly. I hope that he can give me some commitment or indication that they will give it a fair wind, and that the stations will be ready to open by 2012.

All I have just described is in stark contrast to the Tory legacy, under which the first act of the original franchisee was to shed 70 or 80 drivers in order to stay within its bid. The result, of course, was the chaos of constantly cancelled services, loss of passenger confidence and patronage, and a shortage of drivers, all of which took several years and later franchisees to redress.

Rail use in West Yorkshire has, however, recovered from that crisis and has increased by 54 per cent. over the past 10 years. Peak patronage into Leeds has doubled in the past 10 years, and between 7.30 and 9 am, more than 90 per cent. of trains have standing passengers, with some trains carrying up to 200 per cent. of seated capacity. A 2008 survey found that the 17.13 Leeds to Knaresborough service, which runs on the Harrogate line through my constituency, had around 270 passengers travelling on a three-car train with only 157 seats—it often has 110 standing passengers. The train operates at around 120 per cent. of total capacity, that being DFT capacity, which also includes some standing passengers. The DFT franchise capacity for the train is 222, which includes provision for 65 people standing, so the train already exceeds that by 50 standing passengers.

There are particular concerns about overcrowding in the morning peak hour between 8 and 9 am on several routes, on which trains consistently operate at more than 90 per cent. capacity. As my right hon. Friend will know, when trains operate at more than 70 per cent. of DFT capacity, passengers have to stand to be carried on them. Harrogate line trains from Harrogate and Knaresborough through Horsforth in my constituency operate at 96 per cent. capacity on average.

My right hon. Friend will know that the current Northern Rail franchise was awarded on a no-growth basis, despite the substantial increase in passenger numbers to which I have referred. Fortunately, Metro, Northern Rail and Yorkshire Forward have worked together to secure 37 extra carriages. That is welcome, as it represents an increase of one third for the lines served, but passenger numbers have doubled, and that puts it into context. That is why overcrowding is so acute, and why a sustained increase in carriages is essential.

The 2007 rail White Paper and the high-level output specification for the railways recognised the problem in Leeds and set out proposals for investing in additional carriages. Subsequent plans, which were welcome, proposed 182 extra carriages for Northern Rail services, including some new-build diesel and electric trains. Unfortunately, following the DFT’s embargo on ordering new-build diesel trains, Northern will now have to make do with substantially fewer carriages than was originally promised, and all of them, I regret, will be older-type carriages handed down from elsewhere on the network.

The Wharfedale rail users group has highlighted the concerns of passengers, but those concerns are shared across all the lines that run through my constituency. In a thoughtful submission to the Yorkshire and Humber route utilisation strategy, WRUG called for a mix of additional, retimed and longer peak-hour trains for Leeds to reduce overcrowding, for more early morning trains at weekends, for improved frequency of trains on Sundays and for simple improvements to signalling on the line to improve flexibility and reliability.

Unfortunately, the only improvement that was accepted—this is welcome—was the lengthening of four peak-hour trains in each direction by the addition of two coaches to increase them to six coaches, but none of the other improvements was accepted. Of course, that one is to be welcomed, and it is far better than what we inherited from the previous Government, but, as WRUG rightly says, if growth continues at even half the current level, the trains will be as crowded as ever within just a few years.

To run longer trains, the platforms between Guiseley and Ben Rhydding must be lengthened. Network Rail says that that will not happen until 2012-13. That will obviously not tackle today’s overcrowding, so there is a much greater sense of urgency about what is needed.

There is also clear disappointment that the line will receive second-hand trains that do not meet modern access requirements for older people or people with disabilities. The trains will have limited space, with tip-up seats for pushchairs and bicycles, and no advanced information systems or air conditioning, which are currently enjoyed on most of the rolling stock on the Wharfedale line. While any additional carriages will be welcome, it is vital that the DFT commits more firmly to a second phase of rolling stock for Northern that includes high-quality and, dare I say it, preferably new rolling stock for the region.

I want to say a few words about Leeds Bradford airport, to which transport links are extremely poor. A recent planning application to improve and expand the terminal was opposed by many of my constituents. I stress that they are not nimbys—they accept the airport as a fact of life and moved into their houses knowing full well of its existence—but they genuinely feared that the application was a precursor to future unsustainable growth.

When the council recently privatised the airport—it was controlled by five West Yorkshire authorities—and gave up total control over its development, I anticipated that we would quickly have a debate of that kind. It is ironic that, having let the genie out of the bottle, the council is now trying to make a virtue of putting it back in. The surrounding communities—my constituents—have been badly let down by the council’s having earmarked little or none of its £60 million share of the proceeds from the privatisation for any measures to mitigate the impact of the airport’s operation.

The new terminal would allow the airport to cater for 5 million passengers a year. Although that level of patronage and more is projected in the airport’s master plan, such growth has enormous implications for local environmental issues, including air quality, transport and road safety, as well as the broader challenge of climate change. Without a major modal shift, which will require support from the Government, the impact on local communities is likely to be substantial, since the surrounding highway network cannot absorb even present traffic levels, let alone the projected ones.

Although the airport’s financial contribution to bus services is to be welcomed, that is unlikely to be sufficient to address the access problems. Setting aside land for a potential tram-train link is also welcome, but unless there is a much clearer commitment at an earlier stage from stakeholders such as the airport owners, the council and Metro—supported, I hope, by the Minister’s Department—to make such a link happen, it will continue to be aspirational and will not be introduced to meet the challenges that I have mentioned.

Leeds is the largest city in the UK without a rapid transit system. The Minister will be relieved because I do not intend to mention the history of Supertram, but in the wake of the Supertram bid, Metro and Leeds city council are continuing to work in partnership to develop a high-quality rapid transit system for Leeds, known as new generation transport, which is effectively a trolleybus system. The NGT project is seeking to provide a high-quality transport system that will help to support the growth of Leeds’ economy and improve the local environment by helping to tackle congestion. I hope that Leeds will, at long last, get its fair share of major infrastructure investment.

Although neither the Supertram nor the new trolleybus system bid that has been submitted would directly serve my constituency and its communities in the first instance, each would have major social, environmental and economic benefits and could eventually provide options for links through Pudsey and west Leeds to both Leeds and Bradford.

Following the submission of the major scheme business case, it is hoped that the DFT will provide a decision on whether the project will, by the end of this year, be given programme entry—perhaps the Minister can provide a bit more information on that—which I understand is the first stage in the Government’s approvals process. The Minister’s view on that would be appreciated.

We also need the Government to support the delivery of the city region transport strategy and give a long-term funding commitment that reverses the historic underfunding that I have mentioned. The city region has just published its refreshed 20-year city region transport strategy in line with the Government’s new approach to strategic transport planning beyond 2012, incorporating the Eddington and Stern recommendations regarding the economics of transport and climate change. The strategy focuses on the current and future demands on the transport network in the city region, with particular focus on jobs and housing growth and the transition to a lower-carbon economy, which I regard as vital. The strategy defines spatial priorities and transport interventions to deliver sustainable economic growth.

I cannot apologise for being somewhat parochial in looking through the plan, because elements of it are particularly relevant to my constituency: improved rail services between Leeds and Bradford; expanded park and ride facilities in the New Pudsey area; comprehensive bus priority for the A647; new rapid transit corridors between Leeds and Bradford; possible tram-train options to the airport; the A65 quality bus corridor; and new rail stations at Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge.

Westminster Hall, and Westminster as a whole, is obviously a place for special pleading. As Members of Parliament, we all want the best for our constituents and our constituencies, but I am pleading not just for Pudsey, Leeds and West Yorkshire, but for the whole region, because our social, environmental, and economic interests are so closely interconnected and have not, under the previous or current Government, been properly addressed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on securing this Adjournment debate. He began his excellent speech by comparing himself to a parliamentarian Oliver Twist, and although my knowledge of Dickens is not very good, I know that he is different in a number of ways. First, he keeps coming back for more—again and again—in that I think this is the fourth debate on transport in Pudsey that he has secured in the last four and a half years. Secondly, he actually gets more when he asks for it. His track record over the past few years—I will mention aspects of it during the course of my short speech—shows what an effective parliamentarian and Member of Parliament he has been.

My hon. Friend was right to say that the context of his contribution was choice. The choices are between making the investment that we have put in place over the recent period—yes, of course there should be more—and making savage cuts today, which is what other parties wishing to form a Government seek to do.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on being an advocate for not just Pudsey, but the region as well. I hope that those who read his speech will see that he has been arguing not simply for his own back yard, but for other parts of the region, which will benefit from investment. Indeed, the country has benefited from the investment that has been secured for his region.

I agree that good transport facilities are a vital factor in the drive for more sustainable communities. My hon. Friend is right to say that transport contributes to a wide range of policy agendas, including achieving stronger and safer communities, improving the health of children and young people, promoting equality and social inclusion, improving and looking after the environment, and facilitating economic growth. When transport fails, those aspirations are put at risk, which is why he is right to keep coming back for more.

What is the importance of transport in local communities? The local transport planning process is bringing about a step change in the way in which local authorities plan strategically for transport in their areas. Each local transport plan is a vital part of the work that local authorities undertake with their stakeholders to strengthen their place-shaping role and the delivery of services to their communities. Local authorities are ultimately accountable to their communities, rather than to the Department for Transport, both for the quality of their transport strategies and for ensuring effective delivery.

This Government have shown, and will continue to show, their commitment to investment in sustainable transport in Yorkshire and Humber. My hon. Friend was fair in making that point in his speech.

The regional capital allocation for local road and transport schemes this year alone is £254 million. My hon. Friend will remember that representations were made to the Government last year to make immediate cuts to try to ensure that the deficit did not grow, but we chose not to do so. Direct DFT spending, in addition to the £254 million on road and rail in the Yorkshire and Humber region, was £636 million in 2007-08, and it has doubled in the six years from 2001-02. My hon. Friend will recall that another political party wanted us to share the proceeds of growth instead of investing in Yorkshire and Humber. I am sure that his constituents will appreciate the choice that we made.

Future planning for investment in transport must recognise the realities of building a low-carbon economy and supporting sustainable transport solutions. My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned funding for the Yorkshire and Humber region. In no period in recent times has more money been invested in that region than in the recent period. Substantial investment is going into the region, including the £771 million of funding over three years that was announced in November 2007 to invest in highway maintenance and small schemes, such as public transport projects and town centre improvements, and £47 million has been transferred within the regional funding allocation to integrated transport and maintenance for the current financial year. He is right to say that that will have an implication for residents in Leeds and West Yorkshire, and we know that bus patronage has risen. Metro’s partnership investment in free city bus services for Leeds and Wakefield, and more latterly Bradford and Huddersfield, has been extremely popular and well received. The A65 quality bus corridor has received £21 million for the Kirkstall road in Leeds to speed up journey times, which will lead to even more people using buses.

I am pleased that Metro and Leeds city council are building a brand new town centre bus station at a cost of £3 million to provide new, high-quality and fully accessible facilities. It is more than just a place to catch a bus. It will enhance the town centre, make it more attractive, and provide other benefits for the community, such as 24-hour monitored CCTV and real-time departure information.

My hon. Friend referred to new generation transport. I saw in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph coverage of the fact that his region will put in the application to which he referred. He is right to say that we are working with Leeds and Metro to develop a high-quality bus rapid transit network for the city, involving complementary measures such as park and ride. A trolleybus has emerged as the preferred option and will be known as NGT—new generation transport. It will run mostly on the old Supertram alignments, and £250 million of funding has been set aside in the regional funding allocation for Yorkshire and Humber. My hon. Friend asked us to consider the matter swiftly when the business case has been received, and I have undertaken to do so to allow the decision to be made as soon as possible. He is right to plead for his community and to make his argument.

An important point that I want to deal with before I run out of time concerns the deregulation of buses. Let me make it clear that privatising the buses in the mid-1980s created serious adverse consequences. We want people to use buses at similar levels as back then, but it has taken us some time to achieve that. The Local Transport Act 2008 has given local authorities the necessary tools to deliver better and more integrated transport services. Under the Act, local authorities have greater local freedom and choice, with increased flexibility and powers, so that they can deliver a tailored transport system that is better suited to local needs. It gives local authorities the right mix of powers to improve the quality of local bus services, ranging from voluntary partnership schemes to quality partnership schemes through to quality contract schemes—the London-style model of bus contracts.

We have seen that bus services can work well where there are good relations between bus operators and local authorities, and each is prepared to invest—the local authority in effective bus priority, traffic management and other infrastructure, and operators in offering more attractive services that the public want to use. If partnerships do not work, another tool is needed in local authorities’ armoury.

My hon. Friend has made representations about, and commented on the need for, additional tools in local authorities’ armoury, and I am pleased to say that the Government have consulted on draft regulations. That consultation closed on 7 October, and the responses are being considered. I hear his argument that we must respond quickly, and I expect to be able to finalise the regulations and guidance by the end of the year. Authorities such as his, which want control and another tool in their toolkit, will have that.

My hon. Friend also mentioned rail and High Speed 2. He will be aware that some parties that want to form a Government want a high-speed line from London to just Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds—and that is it. We see the benefits for regions such as his from High Speed 2 going to other parts of the country. His Regional Minister has been a powerful advocate for that, and he will be pleased to know that that Minister met my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Adonis and Sir David Rowlands, the chair of HS2, to make those representations as robustly as possible.

During his excellent speech, my hon. Friend also referred to Leeds-Bradford international airport. He was right to say that the new owners face challenges, but they have ambitious plans for growth, and that will provide local people with a greater choice of travel opportunities.

It has been difficult to respond in 10 minutes to all the excellent points that my hon. Friend made. If I have not covered any of those points, I shall write to him, but I hope that he accepts that the Government have an ambitious agenda for improving transport in not only Pudsey, but West Yorkshire and the wider Yorkshire and Humber region. We have invested in transport and will continue to do so. We will, with regional and local partners, tackle congestion, provide high-quality public transport and improve access to jobs and choice. My hon. Friend is right to continue to exert pressure on the Government, and I hope that his constituents will see some of the benefits and fruits of his lobbying, with even more investment in Pudsey and his region.