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Lowestoft Train Station

Volume 545: debated on Tuesday 15 May 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak about what is an important issue for the Waveney constituency: the opportunity and challenge of redeveloping Lowestoft railway station. Lowestoft Central, the most easterly railway station in Britain, was built in its existing form in 1855. At that time and over much of the proceeding century it was an impressive building, very much at the heart of the town, close to the main shopping area and with sidings running down into the port, the fish market, the timber works and the coach works. Nearby was a thriving holiday resort comprising beaches, two piers, a promenade and assorted hotels and guest houses. Today, the building is unfortunately a very pale shadow of its former self. Its impressive roof was allowed to fall into disrepair and was removed in 1992. The walls remain with the iconic British Rail Lowestoft Central sign on the eastern facade but the surrounds are now untidy, in places strewn with litter, and give a very poor first impression of the town to those arriving by train.

There is now a compelling case for redeveloping Lowestoft Central station, to return it to a good state of repair and to make it a focal point for the regeneration of Lowestoft. Seaside towns such as Lowestoft, which are invariably isolated physically and at the end of the line, are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to attracting new business. This drawback must be addressed if we are truly to rebalance the UK’s economy and realise the full potential of the country’s maritime industries in the energy, tourism and trade sectors. To achieve this we need good infrastructure, the provision of which we have not done particularly well on in Britain in recent years. In many respects that has bypassed East Anglia altogether until recently. Tonight I am concentrating on the railways, but road links and broadband are also important and if I am successful in subsequent ballots, I shall return to them in future debates.

Let me take a few minutes to outline the compelling case for upgrading Lowestoft Central. First, the station occupies a unique location at the heart of Lowestoft. It is strategically placed close to many of the businesses that have such a vital role to play in the town’s future. In the past, there have been plans to move the station inland to the west to open up further retail development opportunities, but that is not a course I wish to pursue. Such a project is not economically viable and in any case the station is in the right location; the challenge we face is to redevelop it on its existing site.

The Mary Portas review highlighted the challenges that town centres have faced in recent years and Lowestoft has had its fair share of those. The main such challenges relate to accessibility and congestion. The seemingly never-ending repairs to the nearby bascule bridge and the sewer repairs in Station square in January and February this year brought traffic to a halt. At present the station is in many respects a blot on the landscape, and it is important that steps are taken to improve its appearance to make a visit to the town centre an experience that is both appealing and enticing. First impressions of a town are important so that people make those vital return visits.

The station stands immediately opposite the former Tuttles department store, originally opened in 1888 and for many decades the town’s main shopping anchor tenant, the magnet that attracted people into Lowestoft. The Tuttles building has also fallen into disrepair in recent years, but a planning application has just been submitted for its redevelopment by Wetherspoons. This is welcome news and I believe it is now appropriate to focus attention on Lowestoft’s other landmark building, the railway station just across the road. As work gets under way, we hope, on the Tuttles building in the coming months, people are entitled to ask what plans there are for the station. It is important that we have the answers and can show that we are on the case.

Some years ago Wetherspoons obtained planning permission for redevelopment of part of the station. I do not know precisely why the scheme did not go ahead, but it is important that such opportunities are not missed again. As well as helping the town centre, a redeveloped railway station can play an important role in supporting two other industries that are important to Lowestoft’s and Waveney’s economic future.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I spoke to him earlier about the matter and congratulate him on bringing it to the Chamber. At the beginning of his contribution, he mentioned the tourism potential. Is it time for the Government, the regional assemblies and the railway companies to have a co-ordinated plan to lift railway stations such as Lowestoft and others elsewhere in the United Kingdom, to ensure that the tourism potential can be achieved? The economic boost that that would bring could benefit Lowestoft and many other places in the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. In an effort to rebalance the economy, the seaside and the seaside towns—the marine economy—is in many respects the hidden jewel of the British economy and we do not make enough of it. Therefore any initiatives that help us to realise the marine economy’s full potential are to be welcomed.

As well as helping the town centre, a redeveloped railway station can play an important part in supporting other industries that are important to Lowestoft’s future— tourism and energy. Lowestoft Central station is within walking distance of the town’s two beaches, which have just had their Blue Flag status reconfirmed. Inland are the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. The two railway lines serving Lowestoft, the East Suffolk line from Ipswich and the Wherry line from Norwich, are themselves tourist attractions passing through attractive countryside, along the Suffolk coast, through the water meadows and alongside the waterways of the broads. It is so important that the journey’s end should be in keeping with the rest of these special journeys.

The station is also close to two of the areas that form part of the Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone, which came into operation on 1 April. The enterprise zone is focused on the energy sector, both oil and gas and offshore renewables. In the case of the latter, Lowestoft occupies an important strategic location as the port that is closest to some of the largest proposed offshore wind farms—SSE’s Galloper and Gabbard development and Scottish Power’s and Vattenfall’s East Anglian Array. Already wind farm developers and supply chain companies are looking either to increase their presence in the area or to move into the town. A smart station as part of a good rail service will play an important role in attracting them and jobs to the area. The station in its current form and appearance provides no help in attracting such inward investment.

Significant improvements to the local rail network are now taking place, and if they are to realise their full potential, it is important that we have stations that are attractive in appearance and provide customers with the facilities they need. Work is currently taking place on the Beccles loop on the East Suffolk line which will lead later this year to a resumption of an hourly service from Lowestoft to Ipswich; indeed, I understand that the construction of the loop was completed this past weekend. That work is welcome and the service should prove popular, but Lowestoft Central in its current state will be a let-down to many passengers, and I fear that at present it does not pass the test in terms of appearance, facilities and services on offer.

Other improvements have taken place as well, including the new passenger lift at Ipswich station, which will make it easier for travellers to connect with ongoing services to and from London Liverpool Street and further afield on Crossrail, which will improve access in and around London and to Heathrow, thereby helping to address the challenge of physical isolation that has held back the Lowestoft economy in recent years. In due course it is important that the through service from Lowestoft to Liverpool Street is resumed, but that is another debate for another day.

A further consideration to have in mind is that bus services in and around Lowestoft are being improved. Suffolk county council, with sustainable transport fund finance, is putting on a new circular bus route, serving the main employment areas and tourist destinations. The bus will stop at the station, as does the 601 service that runs down the coast to Kessingland and Southwold. To ensure that the investment in these services is successful the area around the station needs to be looked at closely to ensure that it is laid out in a way that enables the station to play a full role as a transport interchange and hub, not only for buses but also for taxis, and with the necessary facilities for the disabled, the elderly and the infirm.

The case for redeveloping Lowestoft station is a strong one that satisfies the most rigorous of cost-benefit analysis. I anticipate that the feedback I may get from the Minister, although I do not wish to prejudge his response, is that this is a good idea but there is no money available and I will need to take my place in that good old British institution of the queue. I shall now set out a suggested way forward and the support that I would like the Government to provide.

First, we need to consider future franchising arrangements. Abellio, which is now operating as Greater Anglia, took on a 29-month franchise in February of this year. That runs until July 2014. The new franchise needs to be in a form and of a nature that encourages both good management of the property and investment in it. A longer-term franchise would help secure this investment from the operator, who should also be given full control and responsibility for the management of the whole station and all its surrounds.

As I mentioned earlier, much of the surrounds of Lowestoft station are at present untidy and strewn with litter. Part of the problem is that no one party, neither Network Rail nor Greater Anglia, is ultimately responsible for its upkeep; it is a shared liability. The result is that no one takes full responsibility. There is nowhere for the buck to stop. In essence, a full repairing lease needs to be granted to the rail operator so that it is fully responsible for keeping the station and its surrounds in both good repair and tidy in appearance. This is a role for the train company and not Network Rail, which should concentrate its efforts on its core activity of being responsible for the track and larger category A stations, such as King’s Cross and Birmingham New Street. Smaller stations, such as Lowestoft, should be the responsibility of train operators, which are better attuned to local needs and demands and will have more of an incentive to provide a smart station that will help attract customers.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on raising this matter. As he knows, I have a twin brother who lives in Lowestoft and has lived there for 25 years. He constantly makes the case for having a station that has connectivity to the rest of Britain, and it is a case that could be made throughout the United Kingdom, especially in our rural parts. We must have this connectivity to enliven our rural parts of Britain.

I wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. He is quite correct. As I said, railways have a key role to play in reinvigorating the parts that perhaps other means of transport do not get to.

Secondly, I would look to all interested parties to get together as a local delivery group to produce a blueprint of how the station should be redeveloped. I have in mind not only Greater Anglia and Network Rail, but Suffolk county council and Waveney district council. The latter has just appointed two project managers to help promote regeneration of this area of Lowestoft and they can take the lead in this work. The chamber of commerce, the new Anglia local enterprise partnership and the town centre partnership, which recently submitted the Portas pilot bid, should also be involved, and there should be an opportunity for the public to have their say. I would welcome the Minister’s support for such an initiative and confirmation that he will encourage Network Rail to participate fully and proactively.

Once it has been agreed how the station should be redeveloped, we need to think creatively about funding. The national stations improvement programme has had great success in completing projects, leveraging in private funding and delivering schemes that provide a real dividend for local communities. It has been such a success that all the funds for the period to 2014 have been spent. Given that success, I ask the Minister to lobby the Treasury for additional funds in the autumn statement and next year’s Budget for the continuation of the scheme.

We also need to consider other sources of funding, such as the coastal communities fund and the regional growth fund, and how best to leverage in private investment. A possible way forward with the latter might be the granting of sub-leases to restaurants, newsagents and other shops, for example, which as part of their financial commitment would pay rent at a lower level and agree to carry out capital improvements to a particular part of the property.

As a chartered surveyor, I was taught at a very early stage in my career that there are three factors that determine the success or failure of a redevelopment scheme: location, location and location. Lowestoft Central station occupies a unique location; it is the most easterly station in Britain, at the heart of the town’s main trading and retailing area and situated close to two of its most important industries—energy and tourism. I believe that the scheme could produce an attractive return, by bringing more people into Lowestoft, creating a feel-good factor and helping to provide and underpin jobs. I hope that the Minister and the Government will work with the people of Lowestoft to achieve that goal at the earliest possible opportunity.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate and providing the House with an opportunity to discuss the necessary redevelopment of Lowestoft train station. The coalition Government understand that the quality of stations is an important issue for passengers and are committed to facilitating investment in station improvements through reforms to the way the railways are run.

To pick up directly on the first point my hon. Friend made, we are granting longer rail franchises in order to give train operators the incentive to invest in the improvements that passengers want, including better stations. I recognise that the present Greater Anglia franchise is only two years long, a point to which I will return later in my remarks. Further funding for major station improvements over the 2014-19 period—this relates to his third point—will be considered as part of the high-level output specification process, with an announcement expected in the summer. To give him some reassurance, I am always happy to lobby the Treasury for funds for transport schemes, although with more success on some occasions than on others. The Department is considering the need for future investment over the next five-year period, so his debate is well timed in that respect.

My hon. Friend also referred to the need for good management and investment in stations and suggested that full control of stations should be handed to train operators, coupled with a full repairing lease for the operator. I am happy to tell him that we are committed to giving train operators full responsibility for the management and operation of many stations. The Greater Anglia franchise, which started on 5 February 2012, is the first to implement that policy and does so for more than 160 stations. Until that franchise was let, stations were typically leased by a franchisee from Network Rail for the duration of the franchise, with responsibilities for maintenance, repair and renewals divided between Network Rail and the franchisee. He is correct that too often that resulted in inefficient working, because there were, in effect, two estate managers.

Although a franchisee could develop stations, they often have not done so in practice, because they have seen the period in which to realise benefits as too short and the compensation mechanism for securing value beyond the end of the franchise as not sufficiently attractive. Additionally, property interest is divided and the consent mechanisms are complex.

The new arrangements that have been agreed between the Department, Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation and the Association of Train Operating Companies—their umbrella body—are designed to give franchisees full responsibility for station operation and management.

I recognise the hard work that my hon. Friend puts in on behalf of Lowestoft residents and, particularly, those who use rail services, and I know that he has campaigned strongly to help secure the funding necessary for the implementation of the Beccles loop, to which he referred, the implementation of which—later this year, I am advised—should greatly benefit Lowestoft by allowing additional services to operate. Indeed, I understand that he made an appearance on local television only today in support of the matter.

My hon. Friend has also been a strong supporter of Suffolk county council’s bid for funding under the local sustainable transport fund, and I am pleased to confirm that I was able to approve £5 million of funding that should bring significant benefits for Lowestoft residents, including the improved bus-rail interchange at the railway station to which he refers.

As my hon. Friend will know, I visited Lowestoft on 12 October last year, when I was able to see with my own eyes the facilities available to passengers at the station and, therefore, to understand fully the case for improvement. It does help in one’s ministerial capacity to visit the places about which one talks, because then one understands more fully the remarks that are made. I did appreciate the iconic British Rail sign, which is one of the unique ones around the country—I suppose it is unique, if we are going to use that adjective; but I can also confirm that the station was looking a little sorry, and indeed I might even go so far as to say that in its present state it leaves a lot to be desired. So I well understand why my hon. Friend has brought this subject to the House tonight.

The good news is that, in addition to the improvements that I have mentioned, under the current Greater Anglia franchise there is a commitment to provide 110 additional car parking spaces at the station. I understand that Suffolk county council is developing detailed plans for consultation with interested parties, such as Network Rail and Greater Anglia, and I encourage all parties to work together to secure the benefits anticipated by the funding bid.

Lowestoft is also a fully accessible station, which is not something that can be said for all our Victorian infrastructure throughout the country, and that is beneficial to all passengers but, having said that, I certainly recognise my hon. Friend’s aspirations for an improvement in the general condition of the station.

This Government, as I have said, believe that train operators are best placed to understand the needs and aspirations of local rail users and stakeholders, and they have a clear line of accountability. Our policy of giving full maintenance responsibility at stations to a single entity—in this case, Greater Anglia—will remove the previous inefficiencies and duplications and allow the franchisee to focus on the efficient operation of the station and the development of maintenance and improvements plans that meet local needs. I certainly encourage the current Greater Anglia franchise holder to work closely with all stakeholders, including my hon. Friend, to secure in the short term the progress towards the improvements that local residents quite rightly wish to see delivered at Lowestoft station.

As my hon. Friend knows, the current Greater Anglia franchise has been let for a short period, and it is likely that if more significant investment is sought at the station, it might be delivered through the next franchise, which will be let for a long period. He and other key stakeholders will have an opportunity to respond to the Department’s consultation on the next franchise and to engage with potential bidders when they are announced in order to put the case for further investment at Lowestoft station. I know that he will continue to represent the interests of Lowestoft and the surrounding area in order to develop economic and environmental benefits for residents, visitors and tourists.

My hon. Friend referred also to the concept of a local delivery group, and I am very happy to say that we certainly support such initiatives, which are very much the coalition Government’s direction of travel in terms of devolving responsibility for the rail network to local areas. So we must not forget the good work that community rail partnerships have already done to bring new life to tired and sometimes derelict rail stations and, indeed, to branch lines up and down the country.

Through work with local people and volunteers, many of those stations have been transformed. Such schemes have included school artwork projects, rubbish clearance, which may be of particular interest to my hon. Friend, station gardens and a range of innovative, small-scale and cost-effective refurbishments that encourage passengers. Having seen what the community has done to transform Plumpton station, a small country station in my constituency, I very well understand the benefits that such community engagement brings to smaller stations and to branch lines.

About 4,000 volunteers work in community rail, contributing over 1.2 million hours of work and bringing around £27 million of extra value to the rail industry, with an estimated benefit-cost ratio of £4.60 benefit for every £1 spent. Recognising the value of community rail, the Department has formally designated over 30 community rail routes. Designation encourages good standards across the community rail industry. There are many examples of excellent community rail projects across the country. For example, as my hon. Friend will know, the Wherry line between Lowestoft and Norwich is a successful partnership promoting the railway and the surrounding area to develop economic and environmental benefits for residents, visitors and tourists. His idea of a local delivery group therefore builds on something that has already taken shape in the area. I certainly think that the idea of the local council, and indeed the wider community, working with the rail industry, be it Network Rail or the train company, is likely to be helpful and successful.

In summary, I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the coalition Government are committed to improving and modernising stations across the network through a combination of substantial investment and reform of the way in which the railways are run. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to engage with the local train operator to secure the further improvements that he understandably seeks for Lowestoft station.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.