Thursday 18 December 2014
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Business Investment (Outer-City Estates)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mel Stride.)
I am pleased to be here under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies, on the last day that the House is sitting.
This is a debate on a very important topic—the outer cities. We hear a lot about the inner cities but the outer cities, and I represent an outer-city constituency, often seem to be the forgotten part of the UK. One of the things that I have attempted to do is to bring the outer cities back into focus and back on to the Front-Bench agendas of all parties. Outer cities are often neglected and unbalanced, with too many houses and not enough jobs. There must be a strategy, at both national and local level, to address their problems, and I am happy to be trying to pioneer that approach in my constituency of Nottingham North.
On the first day that the Minister for Skills and Equalities was in his new office, I had an Adjournment debate on part of the agenda that we are putting forward in Nottingham North. I will not today go back over the demographic and statistical background to prove how deprived my constituency is, other than to say it is one of the most deprived constituencies in the UK. I will give one example: it sends the fewest number of young people to university of any constituency in the UK, and, as I will refer to later, it has 1,250 young people who, by the age of 24, have never known a single day’s work in their lives. I could regale Members with other statistics, but I have already done that, so today I will talk about what we are doing locally. We are not being ground down by our circumstances, rather we are getting together, organising and improving our local circumstances in the long term. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more, from his point of view, about how the effective partnership that we have between our locality and national Government Departments is working.
Many local partners have worked together, and continue to do so, on outer-city problems. It is not as if nothing is being done; people are working incredibly hard. However, what we have done in my constituency is to add a further and original element, by creating an independent charity to cover the whole of the Nottingham North area—the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation. I hope that this charity, as it goes through its learning curve, can teach others lessons that can be spread throughout the United Kingdom. That particularly applies to the topic we are discussing today, which is the lessons around economic and business investment in the outer cities.
However, the expectations need to be made realistic from the outset. The role of Rebalancing—if I may call it that—is not only to speak up for the area but to broker the deals and convene the partners who can help. We are not a delivery body. We rely on a small board and a tremendously dedicated staff team from the public and private sectors, who generously give their time and personnel. We are indebted, not least to Public Health England, the local enterprise partnership, the council, Carillion, Nottingham City Homes, further and higher education, and the social enterprises, community and voluntary sector, as well as many others—even the local MP, and I declare an interest, as I am the chair of the Rebalancing charity. The key to all such enterprises of change is and will always be effective partnership working, not just in the locality but also between the local and national levels. Convention forbids me from naming them, but I will put on the record my appreciation of the support and creativity that particularly officials, but also Ministers, have shown. That has been immensely encouraging and helpful.
I will give two small examples of what I mean. One involves retail and shopping. We are working with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), and her Department. We will host an outreach event in Nottingham in the new year, which will bring together a range of local retailers from across the area to build links and share best practice. There are lots of great examples up and down the country of people coming together to breathe life back into their communities, and there is no reason why we cannot apply that energy to the shopping parades on our outer-city estates.
Another example is building on the encouragement of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has responsibility for public health, by bringing forward dental checks for every three-year-old. That is a legal provision at the moment, but it is terribly underused. We would also like to introduce a lung check for every 60-year-old, because we have 1970s levels of smoking in Nottingham North. Finally, we aim to do the first prevalence study of the drinking habits of mums-to-be, so that we can tackle foetal alcohol syndrome, which is so damaging to the growth potential of many of the young people in my constituency.
However, the focus today is on investment. If we are to tackle the problems of outer-city estates sustainably, our investment horizon must be long-term—at least 10 years and preferably much longer. That is hard to achieve when our partners are dealing hand to mouth with the consequences of austerity. That is one of the reasons why our relationship with the LEP is central. Our LEP is called D2N2—Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—and its growth deal not only talked about building roads and bridges but included a commitment to develop our rebalancing outer-city estates project, with the aim of getting more people into work, raising education and skill levels, and making better use of local assets and spending. The growth deal also states that the rebalancing project can be used to provide evidence on how these practices can be applied effectively to similar outer-city areas.
Included in the LEP’s growth deal were commitments from the Cabinet Office, the DCLG, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to work with the LEP, to develop proposals and to help put those proposals into action where there is a strong case for doing so. In order to sustain the Rebalancing charity itself, we have submitted a bid to the LEP, which will be decided on in the new year. Separately, we have a big, overarching employment and skills plan, which will be discussed with our key funding partners. We hope to make progress on the main proposals by about March next year. I will come back to that plan a little later.
Fundamental to business investment coming to the rebalancing area is that the labour market is ready, and that local people have the education, skills and training to be able to take the jobs on offer. Again, I could go on about the evidence regarding the demography that we are working with, but I will give just one example from our evidence base. A majority of working-age people in Nottingham North are not qualified to work in anything beyond entry-level—that is, unskilled—employment, and that problem is particularly pronounced among young people. That is one of the worst statistics, or pieces of evidence, showing the problems afflicting Nottingham North, and we are determined to do something about it. To tackle those problems requires consistent and sustained intervention. Little bits of money thrown here and there, which finish after a year or 18 months, can be worse than useless, because they raise expectations; they gear people up, then drop them back down again. A little investment and a little energy provided over a long period will be much more beneficial to communities. They can build on that, and then take over themselves as the investors gently move aside and the process transitions to people entirely running their own affairs.
There are several examples of how we are doing that. I have been discussing the matter with Ofsted and concluded a positive agreement with it and with the principals of the six secondary schools in the constituency, frankly, just to talk to each other outwith the quasi-judicial relationship that Ofsted and inspectors tend to have with schools. Let us talk to each other and find out what works. Let us talk to each other and see if we can understand each other better. As Ofsted expands its inspection regime to include young people who are not going to get 5 A to Cs—the pre-NEETs, if they can be called that—let us talk to each other to see how we can recognise their achievements. I have been to see the Minister about that as well. I can inform him that, since we met last, those meetings are now taking place. Indeed, we are extending them across the whole city, so that heads can understand better and Ofsted can understand heads better. It is one of the lessons that I mentioned earlier. That is absolutely positive progress.
The other thing that we are doing—I alluded to this some time ago, but things have moved on—is the youth engagement fund bid. We are now towards the end of that process. We are still not sure that we are going to win out, but numbers of other applicants have been weeded out as the process has gone on, so we are ever hopeful. If we are lucky enough to get that funding, we intend to have what I would call a careers adviser in every one of my secondary schools. No doubt they are called a life-work coach or some such name these days, but the theory remains the same: helping young people at the earliest possible moment to figure out what their options are in terms of skills, training and employment. They will be there to do that early and to be alongside young people as they grow through school.
The second part of the youth engagement fund bid is to create a small college dedicated to the 14 to 17-year-old group that I mentioned—what we might call the pre-NEETs—so that those people have their own place to go to. Just as the heads are dealing with the five A to C group at school, we want to place those other young people in an environment where they may want to go on and study. We are locating that college in the middle of a completely rebuilt further education college in the middle of my constituency. It was a great privilege to go on site with a hard hat and wellies, with Ofsted and all our principals and local head teachers, to see where the 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEET college will be, as it is being developed and built. I believe that it will be occupied around the middle of next year.
That college has much more potential. We are rebuilding on part of it, but it also has some land, which in the outer cities is an incredible asset. It is not a green field. Every last bit of land and property, every last street corner and every derelict site must be used to try incrementally to bring work, skills and training back into an area like mine. Using what is called the Basford Hall further education college of New College, Nottingham will be fantastically important.
I want to focus a little bit on something rather closer to home for the Minister and the Department: the disadvantaged learners scheme. We are working on proposals for the disadvantaged learners scheme with the LEP and with central Government help. The LEP commitment is to work with Government and other parties to co-design, test ideas and learn from the disadvantaged learners pilot. We are happy to be one of the guinea pigs—we hope, if we are so lucky. Central Government’s commitment is to support the LEP in developing a targeted ward-level pilot, focused on addressing skills challenges faced by disadvantaged learners with multiple barriers to employment and, subject to agreement on the proposals, to make funding and flexibilities available within the adult skills budget. The pilot will consider how local partners can work together to improve outcomes.
A key word in that regard is “flexibilities”. It is always helpful if extra resource is given, but much of what we need to do in a place such as Nottingham North, in the rebalancing area, is about having discretions around the edges to let people get on and do the job as they see it, to trial particular approaches, rather than just going straight down the line, with people saying, “Do it this way or not at all.” I know it is difficult—Whitehall has to run the whole country—but I have found that officials and Ministers are positive about minor changes that could be trialled and looked at in places such as Nottingham North, just to make the system work a little smoother, in the way that we all intended in the first place.
The disadvantaged learners fund complements the bigger, overarching employment and skills plan that we are putting together. The ambition behind that plan is for all those who live in Nottingham North to embark on a journey through education, skills and training and, ultimately, employment. Yes, it applies to the hardest to reach, but to everybody else as well. That is our ambition. It is a big one, but we think we can do it, given time, patience, flexibility and the drive that all our local partners are bringing to bear. The overarching employment and skills plan brings help at every stage of that journey, from helping people to address their initial barriers to work and training, to engaging employers in local labour schemes, and assisting people to access formal accredited training and qualifications to levels 2 and 3 and beyond.
In the big plan there are five key initiatives. I do not think the Minister has heard this before, because we have only just pulled it together and we are working with officials in his Department and others to be clearer about them. All the initiatives are of some benefit to disadvantaged learners, and some support the delivery of formal accredited training and access into employment for the hardest-to-reach groups.
First, community job coaches will provide continuous mentoring and pastoral support to the hardest-to-reach jobseekers throughout their journey to employment. Instead of popping in every so often, asking, “How’s it going?”, there will be someone with them, whom they can have confidence in and ask the right questions of and who will take them on the journey. Then there will be the great moment when that person is totally independent and can fly on their own.
Secondly, personal employability budgeting will meet the unforeseen costs that prevent jobseekers from the deprived estates of Nottingham North from accessing training and work. Those things crop up, and a little flexibility around a budget can get a young person to an interview, get them in good shape and allow them to do the things that they need to do to ensure that they are getting the opportunity.
Thirdly, community-employer partnerships will encourage employers to engage more with local communities, give greater support and get more involved in employability interventions. That sounds pretty straightforward, Mr Davies. You and I normally would just put a circular letter out, saying, “Come along to a meeting, have a sausage on a stick and talk to me about this issue.” However, it is a bit harder to do in a place with a demography like that of Nottingham North. I have done that and ended up with just two small employers in the room. In such places a one-man business has to shut the shop for two hours for the privilege of going to have a little chat with the Member of Parliament. We need to work harder on that. Certainly, we are working closely with the Federation of Small Businesses to do that.
Fourthly, a skills in the community element will deliver accredited vocational training and qualifications in a community setting and alongside mentoring and the softer types of community-based support. There was a cull—some of us would say, “About time, too”—of a lot of accredited courses. I have discussed this openly and sensibly with the Minister, and I think that the baby went out with the bathwater in a number of cases. A number of courses performed a really good function in getting a young person back into thinking about education: attending, working, writing. Frankly, if it does that, it has the makings of being the sort of course that people might want to accredit, because it starts a young person who has dropped off the conveyor belt back on the journey to skills, training and work. I am of course not saying that anything will do. That attitude was around before. However, sometimes we need to go back, have another look at the list and say, “There are a number of courses on there that should be reaccredited.” That way, we can start to get these young people on that journey. It all starts with that first step.
The fifth and final initiative is a local growth plan to develop and implement strategy to support local businesses, helping them to grow and create jobs for unemployed residents in Nottingham North. A variety of barriers exist to all those things. If it was easy, we would have done it a long time ago. The Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation is well placed to talk to the people the normal public sector institutions sometimes find it difficult to link to, through, for example, drug and alcohol work, youth work, sometimes community protection, mental health and even public health and housing. Bringing those areas in and engaging them in addressing social and personal issues is an end in itself, but another consequence of engaging with those people is that they will start to think about training, skills and employment.
If successful, our disadvantaged learners fund bid would set up a partnership to manage personal employability budgets and employ community jobs coaches, embedding them in the local community. That would not be the Rebalancing foundation, but a third party, properly procured and tested to ensure that it could deliver high-quality employability budgets and community jobs coaches. Those coaches would provide one-to-one pastoral support to develop some of these young people who do not have basic social and emotional capabilities, such as one would expect from a young person serving people in a retail shop, selling a tie or whatever. These young people are not capable of engaging and having that sort of negotiation and interaction. Sometimes it is as basic as those fundamental social and emotional skills that most of us take for granted. A real incentive for the partner organisations we can engage is that it ticks the boxes of their agendas. For example, gaining training and employment decreases the likelihood that young people will get involved in crime. I often say, as no doubt do you, Mr Davies, that the best crime prevention measure is a good job. People in work are more likely to be healthier, less of a burden on the health service and to live longer and happier lives. Employment increases income, ensuring sustainability of rent payments and addressing housing issues. Work can bring structure and self-worth to life, improving mental health and helping to tackle some of the consequences of mental ill health, including drug and alcohol problems.
Rebalancing would ensure a good mix of provision that is suitable for local disadvantaged learners. We would work closely with our partners to do that. As I mentioned, we want to target directly the 1,250 unemployed young people in the area, as well as cutting off the supply of young people into that group. That is one of our key ambitions. If we are fortunate enough to succeed in our bid, from August 2015 and running for three years, we would target three trial wards within the Rebalancing area. In those wards, we would target those aged 19 to 24 who are long-term unemployed and have claimed out-of-work benefits for more than six months. The information—their names and addresses—sits with the Department for Work and Pensions and some form of interaction or agreement will therefore need to be in place, whereby the Department regularly updates information on the eligible beneficiaries within the proposal target area.
Briefly, on small businesses, Rebalancing had a meeting just a couple of weeks ago with the NBV, the Federation of Small Businesses, the east midlands chamber of commerce, Invest in Nottingham, RightTrack Social Enterprise and Business in the Community. We agreed on three specific things that we would like to take forward. The first is the development of a concise and clear marketing and communication plan for small and medium-sized enterprises, underpinned by a few key messages. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) has taken a particular interest in pursuing similar ideas. The second is the deployment of business buddies to engage and mentor small and medium-sized enterprises, understanding the support they need to grow and assisting them in providing that essential service. Having someone to turn to who has been there and done it is important if someone is starting up a single or double-handed business. The creation of a Nottingham North SME advocate agency—part of the problem about being in a big city is that a city-wide function might not reach the places it needs to reach most—that represented the interests of SMEs would give them the support they need and a voice in our city and nationally.
I want to put a few specific issues on the Minister’s radar, although I do not suppose he will have time to deal with all of them today. I have touched on some of them. My first key word is intensiveness. Just having the service there and saying, “We have got it. It ticks the box”, is not good enough. It helps if there is someone to whom those hard-to-reach people can turn or phone outside normal hours. We tried that with the early intervention project in Nottingham with teenage mums using the family-nurse partnerships. Every teenage mum in the programme has an experienced health visitor whom they can turn to at any time. In a way, it is a little bit like that with hard-to-reach jobseekers. To reach them, it requires someone who can be personal and on the end of the phone whenever advice is needed. I put that on the Minister’s radar. Intensiveness as well as coverage is part of the answer.
Flexibility is another key word. I have talked a little about it. Sometimes, we meet the criteria set by the funding body, rather than the criteria needed by the individual. I fully appreciate that it is difficult to administer programmes that are tailor-made for each individual, but frankly it is essential when we are dealing with this sort of person. It is the only way it will work. Do not bother doing it unless there is the flexibility to say, “We can in certain circumstances bend what we are trying to do just to reach that person.” There are lots of great examples of how that has been done and how someone whom everyone else said was a lost cause—they said they would be unemployed for their whole life, could not care less and had this problem and that problem—proves to be a big success story, because of that spark of flexibility and interaction with individuals.
Continuity is another key word. When we are dealing sometimes with families who have inter-generational unemployment, programmes have to be sustainable inter-generationally. Perseverance is needed. The programme needs to be there at all points, because the issues cannot be tackled in the short term. The words “quick” and “fix” do not sit together in the same sentence. Were that true, we would have dealt with the issues long ago.
My final key word is additionality. When we are trying to do something original, flexible and new, we need also to be innovative, interesting and trialling something. Sometimes, people who do that will fail. They need to be allowed to fail, because most of the time they will be finding better ways to do stuff. It must be additional, not an add-on to what we already have with the many very good people in the field already. The bulk of the bigger picture on employability will be looked at over the next couple of months.
We hope to benefit from European structural and investment funding, which is coming up shortly, and want to work up a proper bid with our local partners, the LEP, the council and others to produce a community-led local development programme to be delivered by the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation and local partners. We hope to agree that by March next year and to get action on the ground via the LEP following that bid no later than the second quarter of 2015-16.
In conclusion, I apologise for perhaps being a little long-winded, but it is necessary when trying to explain something new, innovative and, I hope, exciting. It represents a possible way forward in several different areas. I repeat that I am almost certain that several of the projects—across the whole range from public health to community building, which I have not talked about—that we are attempting to put together will fail, but to be allowed the chance to try to succeed without asking too much of the public purse and building on the good will of our private, voluntary and public sector partners, all of which have contributed without requesting any financial recompense, is a great start.
We hope that we can trial some things for the Minister and for the Government. Should there be a change of Government, whether we get another coalition or whatever else May might bring, that offer will remain. We have made a start in Nottingham North. We are not whingeing about the numbers or about where we sit in a league table. We are using the best offices of people in the locality, the best official advice and interaction with Government, and we intend to make a real difference. Ultimately, our ambition is to ensure that every young person leaves school work-ready and gets a job.
It is traditional at this point in a contribution to say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is always a pleasure to see you on the Back Benches as well. You are always keen to make contributions, some of which have been among my favourites and will no doubt find their way into my leaflets in April.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on not only the contribution he just made, but the wider work for which he is recognised and admired across the House. His description of the specific work being done on rebalancing outer estates was informative and thought-provoking. He described it as long-winded, but the time positively flew by for me. It was also a pretty strong sales pitch for cross-departmental work and the impact that that can have on areas such as his constituency. He was typically pragmatic and non-partisan, which may be something for me to aspire to in future years, but we cannot escape the political dimension of many of the challenges that his community faces. However, I understand why he would choose not to introduce that into this debate and into his promotion of his cause. He made some thought-provoking points about the challenges and the positive steps that his project can take to make a difference. He spoke at length about the importance of partnership working and bringing on board the private, voluntary and public sectors, local enterprise partnerships and various other networks.
My hon. Friend highlighted that a project such as this will face a lack of core capacity, so where will that capacity come from? In the main Chamber today, we had a statement on local government funding. In many areas, local government would have been the glue that pulled together the fantastic work that he described. We have already seen unprecedented local government cuts over the past four and a half years, and if the events of the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that if we continue down the path the country has taken over the past few years, local government will experience even greater ravages. In somewhere like Nottingham, which has an excellent local authority, that will inevitably have an impact on capacity.
Since we have a little time to spare, I am prompted by my hon. Friend to mention two things. First, in terms of all-party working or working “across the aisle”, it will often be the case that the serious things that we need to do will stretch across more than one Government and more than one political complexion. When talking about intergenerational change, it is important that we attempt to find some common ground across all parties, but there will always be differences.
Secondly, further to my hon. Friend’s point about today’s statement, local government funding is relevant to today’s debate, because I am a strong advocate of proper devolution to local government. Even in the direst circumstances, those in the localities will spend money, limited and diminishing though it is, much more wisely. I pay tribute to the men and women in Whitehall, but local people will spend money more wisely than those in the centre. I hope that my hon. Friend, in his exalted position on the Front Bench, will continue to push that point with his colleagues in Her Majesty’s Opposition.
I do not think that it needs a great deal of pushing. My hon. Friend will be aware of the report produced by Lord Adonis, and the Labour party is enthusiastically pursuing many of its ideas, which would represent significant steps towards devolution. We recognise that whatever Government follow the next election will still be working in straitened economic times and tough decisions will still need to be made, but we disagree about the sustainability of the scale of the proposed cuts. Projects such as my hon. Friend’s must be able to survive from one Government to the next as Governments change colour. The local authority devolution agenda, involving combined authorities working with local enterprise partnerships and bringing in the best of the public, private and voluntary sectors, is a vision that we share.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the impact of austerity on his constituents, which cannot be overstated. We are all conscious of the link between poverty and educational underachievement, but for too long the focus has been on spending more on education to deal with educational underachievement, rather than dealing with poverty, which is an approach that this Government could have taken. In communities that have faced challenges over many years, people will often have to deal with welfare cuts, may have a greater reliance on food banks and may have to deal with other social ills, which will inevitably have an impact on the educational attainment of the area and on other things that my hon. Friend is attempting to address. Placing that on the record is important.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of careers guidance, and I hope that that aspect of his plan is taken up and supported. Careers advice and getting careers advisers in schools in his constituency is a key goal of his project. In fact, one of my most loyal party members in Chesterfield was previously a careers adviser in a school in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I know how important such work is in raising the aspirations and expectations of people from more deprived communities. My hon. Friend should be reassured that, more broadly, the Labour party has publicly identified previous attempts by successive Governments to boost social mobility as having too often focused on getting more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the traditional professions. In many cases, we need to see those young people’s aspirations and expectations opened more broadly, in particular with support for them to set up and run their own small businesses, which is a key part of his focus.
My hon. Friend will also be pleased, I hope, to know that a future Labour Government intend to get a representative of the business community on to every board of governors in every secondary school in the country. Schools do excellent work to ensure that young people pass exams, but alongside that there is real potential in ensuring a focus on the links between schools and the business community, which can have a positive impact on the educational aspirations of young people. He is very much pushing at an open door on the broader approach with what he is looking to introduce in his constituency through that project. I am supportive of his specific initiatives as well as of what needs to be done more generally.
My hon. Friend spoke about personal employability being one of the key criteria that his project wants to support. He is absolutely right to acknowledge the wide recognition of the need for an education system that supports people in their personal employability at the school level and through further education. He was entirely right to say that, although some streamlining of qualifications was necessary, there is a real worry about the focus moving away from vocational education and about the great narrowing of the further education opportunities available to people.
When people leave school, we need to get them on to courses that will not only give them rewards for studying, but get them turned on to study, or there is a real possibility of all of the prevalent problems that come from the absence of that. My hon. Friend was absolutely right about personal employability, but he was also right about the importance of the vocational further education landscape.
I want to touch on and take up the business support challenge set by my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that if we want to see more people from deprived communities setting up businesses, we need them to have the support. I ran three businesses, at least one of which was successful, so I know how important business support is for people when they first set out on that path. It gives them the huge array of knowledge necessary.
When people become a new business owner, they instantly become the salesperson, the marketing person, the buyer, the legal person and the accountant—they are supposed to have all those skills and knowledge bases. Having someone able to support people and understand the kind of environment that they come from and the kind of challenges that they will face, ensuring that they are given correct guidance on the process, is incredibly important business support.
In recent years, in particular in the absence of Business Link, we have seen that business support tends to collect where most businesses are, so the areas already doing well and growing well are pretty well provided for with business support networks, but in areas such as my hon. Friend’s on the exterior of cities, or even more so in small towns and rural areas, business support networks are much more spread out and patchy. As a result, we tend to find most businesses being set up in exactly the areas that are already performing best, and the fewest businesses being set up in the very areas that need them the most. I support what my hon. Friend is attempting to do with the project that he has set up. I make the wider point that his project is perhaps providing a road map for some of the ills that face our country more broadly. That is a challenge that the Labour party will be enthusiastic to take up.
I congratulate my hon. Friend again on his excellent contribution and on the work that he is doing. I support his approach and, even more than that, the need for broader devolution in tough times. He provides a road map that gives us all food for thought about some of the challenges that face a future Government. The principles that he has set out for how Nottingham North can be developed would be listened to by a sensible Government in a much broader context.
I, too, am delighted to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, if not for the same reasons as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins).
I am particularly pleased to be given an opportunity to respond to another debate of my honourable friend, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)—convention has it that we are not Friends, but we are friends nevertheless and will remain so. The hon. Gentleman had a debate on my first day in the post of skills Minister, so it is particularly interesting for me to return to the subject with some understanding of the problems, the various Government programmes and the history of Government interventions in the area, both successful and unsuccessful.
There are different kinds of Members of Parliament. The basic job is the simple one of representing constituents as Parliament deliberates and makes laws. The best kind of Members of Parliament, however, are themselves community leaders and social entrepreneurs. No one fulfils the latter function better in the hon. Gentleman’s community than he does. I would put him in a category with some of the newly elected Members of my own party, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Bedford (Richard Fuller), who both aspire to fulfil the same sort of role in their communities as the hon. Gentleman does in Nottingham North.
I accept that the fulfilment of such a role by the hon. Member for Nottingham North is a tribute to, yes, his moral purpose, but also to the needs of his constituents. Many of them live difficult lives in a country where much seems to have improved over many decades, although not for them—indeed, for some, things have even got worse. It is extremely welcome that he takes on himself the role of initiating, leading, stimulating, chivvying and prodding local and national Government to get them to act in the interests of his constituents.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that his task would be even harder were the broader economic context not one that was improving. The challenges faced by his constituents have stretched over boom times and busts—the challenges are not creations of recent years—none the less, were the economy not growing and creating jobs at an extraordinary rate, one far higher than in the rest of the European Union, his challenge would be far greater. I am sure, without wanting to tempt him into any partisan positions that might sit uncomfortably with him, he would nevertheless agree that the absolute prerequisite for making any progress at all on the issues that he highlights is to have a sustainably growing economy, which of course itself rests on having a Government with a long-term economic plan.
A phrase much used by politicians, in particular those of a glib cast of mind, “the rising tide lifts all boats”, is more revealing in the senses in which it is not true than in those in which it is true. It is clearly true that no boats will be lifted if there is no rising tide. So there has to be a rising economic tide for any progress to be made anywhere in communities that the hon. Gentleman represents or that you, Mr Davies, or I represent. But it is also clear that when we have a rising tide it is easier to identify those boats that stubbornly refuse to rise, and—I am stretching the metaphor to its limits, I feel—those whose structural flaws are so profound that they need direct intervention. That is exactly what he is proposing through his work with the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation and a whole range of other partners.
I will address—briefly and very specifically—the particular schemes that the hon. Gentleman is currently proposing and working on with Government. I hope that I can give him a fairly positive response. He referred to the bid by Rebalancing the Outer Estates and its partners to the youth engagement fund for support for the employment of careers advisers or work-life coaches—whatever one wants to call them—in every secondary school in his constituency. Although he will understand that the rules for such schemes mean that those are not decisions that I can make, I will happily put on the record my support for his bid. So long as it meets the criteria for that fund I would strongly encourage those who are in charge of making those decisions to support that bid. If we are looking for a place where proper engagement with young people is urgently required and where proper advice for them about the different opportunities available to them is desperately needed, it is hard to think of a better example than Nottingham North.
I would make a similar comment about the second project that the hon. Gentleman discussed, the bid to the disadvantaged learners fund for a pilot project.
Just before the Minister moves on, I welcome what he said a moment ago. Does it reflect a slight softening of the Government’s approach to careers guidance that suggests that they now recognise its value on the ground and face to face? Is he saying that they recognise that that sort of careers guidance should happen, particularly in areas of greater deprivation and, if so, are we likely to see that change of approach more generally across the board?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking that question because it allows me to remind him and other hon. Members of the Government’s announcement just last week of a new careers company. That company is specifically charged with identifying those areas of the country—sadly, too many—where, frankly, the headline duty on schools to ensure the provision of independent advice and guidance for young people, to inform their choices both of qualifications and for further progression in the education system and into the world of work, is not being properly met.
Schools need to provide that guidance—it is extremely explicit that they should—although we have tried not to be too prescriptive about how they should do so. When any of us visits a good school, of whatever kind, in whatever community, we find that it provides that guidance. It is not, therefore, something mysterious to those running schools, but unfortunately not all schools do it. There are different ways of doing it; it is not necessarily the case that every school will want to employ its own full-time careers advisers or work-life coaches—it may be that schools will want to work with some of the many social enterprises and charities that do such work. But it is clear that, for schools and communities facing the very particular, deep and deeply entrenched challenges that schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham North face, it is right to look to try to support that kind of very specific project to employ work-life coaches; of course, that particular project will have to prove itself and have benchmarks and a data review to see whether it has had an effect. If other schools choose to use their direct schools grant, which we have been able to protect despite the cuts elsewhere in public expenditure, they will not hear any criticism from me.
I turn back now to the disadvantaged learners pilot. I am looking vaguely at the officials in the box to see whether that is something over which I have more influence, as I do not know, but I suspect my influence is still none—one of the great discoveries on becoming a Minister is how little power one has, not how much. However, again, I say that I cannot think of a better place for that money. To be honest, the figures that the hon. Gentleman has shared with us make it quite clear that it is hard to think of a place where learners are more disadvantaged than in Nottingham North. So again, if the project proposed and being worked on by the local economic partnership and Rebalancing the Outer Estates is able to meet the criteria, I will be a strong enthusiast for it.
I want to respond to one final specific point. The hon. Gentleman said that he felt that the reform of qualifications—he himself acknowledged that that was much needed—with its winnowing out of soft and unproductive qualifications, had caught up some courses and qualifications, particularly those related to employability skills, that he thought had value. If he, or indeed anyone else—it is a general invitation—writes to me with specific details about a qualification that they think was valuable, and can provide evidence of how, I am always happy to have another look. The qualifications he is thinking of were probably removed for a reason, but that does not mean that every such decision is always right or was made when all of the evidence was available. Certainly no decision is ever for ever.
Finally—in this season of good will, I do not wish to test anyone’s patience, Mr Davies—I will reflect on the general points that the hon. Gentleman made about the nature of engagement in areas such as his. He referred to his own long-standing support for localism. That was the first thing that brought us together, before I was elected to this place, and I share his support for it. I know that he welcomes the progress the Government have made with local growth deals, city deals, local economic partnerships and, most interestingly of all, the recently announced agreement with Greater Manchester that will see a substantial devolution of powers and budgets to the new combined authority, not least in the areas of skills and employability. I hope that that is just the first of those moves. I know that my colleagues will be looking forward to receiving proposals from other areas of the country and I will certainly be happy to lend my support to any proposal for Nottingham, led by the hon. Gentleman, to be a candidate for receiving further powers of that sort.
Thank you, Mr Davies—the invitation is unexpected but none the less very welcome.
I thank the two contributors from the Front Benches. My own party’s Front Bench is well represented in this area, particularly on small business, through the expertise that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield brings to bear. I was pleased to hear him continue to emphasise that if Her Majesty’s Opposition become Her Majesty’s Government they will step forward on the devolution trail with an even firmer tread than has been apparent in recent years. That will be very welcome.
I would like to say that the Minister learned everything he knows from being a member of my Select Committee, but that would not be true. However, we were colleagues before he became a Member. His understanding and grasp of this field is second to none. I was pleased and grateful that he made the point that he supports the youth engagement fund bid and, should it be part of his bailiwick, the disadvantaged learners fund bid.
The Minister is absolutely right—as was my hon. Friend—that it is not possible statistically to find a place more in need of assistance. That is not just the case in terms of funding; the interest displayed by Ministers, officials and the Opposition Front-Bench team is as valuable as funding, because it means that people know that they are valued and that others want a way forward for them so that they can achieve and obtain the qualifications that they are absolutely capable of getting.
It is only if we can get that done that all the other things—housing, jobs, building a community—will fall into place. The key is to enable people to set off on the course of education, skills, training and work. If we can crack that, we can crack many more of the problems that come in its wake.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful for this debate on the future of Carnforth station, a subject close to many of my constituents’ hearts, as well as to my own.
In order to discuss the future of Carnforth station, I need to start by discussing the past and how the station has served the community. In the 1940s, it was a bustling junction station that connected the north, south, east and west of the country. Its strategic position created jobs and prosperity from the railway, but the demise of the steam trains in the 1960s sadly led to its demise. The main line platforms were closed down and physically removed in 1970, prior to the electrification of the west coast main line. Carnforth was reduced to a branch station, and its buildings gradually fell into disrepair.
The station has a rich history: most people will recognise it as the setting of David Lean’s classic 1945 film “Brief Encounter”, which was filmed at the station. The station clock is an iconic part of that film—I am sure that many Members are familiar with the romantic scenes that occurred in front of it. There is no truth to the rumour that some of my constituents have said I am the Trevor Howard of the modern era—as much as I would love that—but I hope that this will be not a brief encounter but a railway rendezvous with a destination that will mean only Carnforth reincarnation.
In 1996, members of the community, led by Peter Yates MBE—who is present in the public gallery—joined together to form a trust to restore the station from a shell. Peter’s vision was to see it restored to its rightful place as a transport hub for commuters, tourism and heritage. The trust received £1.5 million pounds of funding, in co-operation with Railtrack. Peter Yates even sourced the original clock and ensured that it was re-installed at the station, where it belongs and still is today. The station’s café and museum are immensely successful and attract tourists from miles around—in fact, from all over the world. Carnforth also features four country walks, and the station café serves the best food of any train station I have ever had the pleasure of stopping at. Couples from all over the world come to the station to propose under the clock, as well as to absorb the ambience of Carnforth’s iconic setting and the surrounding countryside.
Carnforth station is not just a museum or tourist attraction; it should be the natural strategic station to link Barrow, Leeds, Kendal and Windermere. Carnforth has always been referred to as the gateway to the Lakes, and the rail service should reflect that. The station is connected to the M6 motorway by the A601M, and it also has close links to the Lancaster canal. Because of the transport links that the station boasts, it is perfectly placed to displace Lake District traffic and encourage people on to the railway, which will protect our national park for generations to come and cut down on pollution. This year, Carnforth station has seen an increase of 29,672 passengers since 2009, which shows that the train station is becoming more and more popular, not least because of the ease of accessing it. The nearest main train station is Lancaster, which is not easy to get to. In fact, it was recently announced that Lancaster is the second worst area in the country for slow traffic, beaten only by Westminster in central London.
Not only have the figures for station usage risen; the support for the station that I feel as the local Member of Parliament is extraordinary. The people in Carnforth, and the many visitors that it attracts, are supportive of the station, and they contact me every time they feel that there might be a threat to services. Currently, one of the main concerns is the new franchise for the Barrow to Manchester airport line. The Department for Transport has announced that the line between Manchester airport and Preston will be electrified, and my constituents are concerned that that will affect the frequency of trains from Barrow to Preston and on to Manchester airport. I have raised the matter with Ministers, and the DFT’s response was that the winning bidder would be expected to deliver an improved quality of service to customers.
Nevertheless, my constituents remain concerned about the frequency of trains under the new franchise. The main issue that they would like to be addressed is the reinstatement of the platforms on the main line at Carnforth station. On 21 July, I presented to the House a petition of more than 5,000 signatures of people who support reinstating the platforms. For context, the electoral ward of Carnforth has approximately 2,000 homes. That shows how wide ranging is the support for the station in my constituency.
Historically, there were main line platforms at Carnforth station, but they were closed off in the 1970s. My constituent, Robert Swain, has found that the platforms were taken away illegally and never formally closed. Even if that is the case, Network Rail has informed me that in order for the platforms to be brought back into use, a business case must be put forward to show that services would use the reinstated platforms. I have a letter that I received from Chris Gibb when he was at Virgin, which states that although Virgin itself would not seek to stop trains at Carnforth, it has no objection to the main line platform being used by other operators on the line. First TransPennine Express has stated that if the platforms were suitable to accept passengers, it would look into the possibility of stopping further services at Carnforth.
Carnforth station is the centre of the railway universe. It hosts connections to the north, south, east and west, and my constituents would like to see it as the train hub it once was, rather than the mere feeder service for local stations that it currently is. To paraphrase a famous former constituent, Mr Eric Morecambe, is seems that we have all the necessary information we need to restore the platforms at Carnforth station, but not necessarily in the right order.
Let me be clear: my constituents are not asking for the Virgin west coast main line train to stop at Carnforth. That idea has been tried and tested in this House; despite agreements, it has not yet transpired. We are well aware that if Virgin trains did stop at Carnforth, another station would lose its service, and that is not what my constituents want. They would like to see the platform restored so that the Preston to Windermere train, run by First TransPennine Express, can stop in Carnforth. The preliminary maths have already been looked into by the Department for Transport, and a stop at Carnforth on that service would see journey times increased by only a couple of minutes. My constituents, Peter Yates MBE and Robert Swain, conducted a survey of all the trains that passed through Carnforth station in a 10-hour period during the day, and concluded that an extra stop at Carnforth on the main line First TransPennine Express service would not cause any delay to the Virgin trains that pass through the station.
The big problem is trains going north. Geographically, the next town north of Carnforth is Kendal, but to get to Kendal on the train people have to take a train south to Lancaster and then a train north to Kendal, passing through Carnforth on the way back up. That is a huge waste of time and encourages people to use their cars instead of the railway. The other major pull in the area is Windermere. To get to Windermere from Carnforth, people also have to go south in order to go north. If the train from Windermere to Preston could stop at Carnforth, we could welcome more visitors to the “Brief Encounter” café, help tourism in Carnforth, allow commuters to access towns to the north, rather than just to the south, and enable more business to be conducted.
The Lake District hub at the moment is Oxenholme, an extremely small station that is not large enough to keep cars away from other areas of the Lake District. If Carnforth could be the hub, its connections are such that fewer cars would be needed in the countryside. The case for the restoration of the main line platform is only strengthened by HS2 going through the area. When HS2 is built, it will not reach Carnforth, but it will free up a considerable amount of capacity on the main line. Although I understand that no decisions on that will be made until HS2 is near completion, it presents an opportunity for Carnforth station to have even more services stopping at the station.
The people of Carnforth and the wider community would like the platform to be reinstated so that the mainline TransPennine Express train could stop there. How do we go about that? The Department for Transport has told me this is a local decision and it is for Lancashire county council to determine whether such a scheme is a local priority. At the moment, it has not placed it on its priority list. When the Conservative councillor, Tim Ashton, was the portfolio holder for transport at Lancashire county council, he was fully supportive of the reinstatement of the platform. He told the then Secretary of State for Transport of this proposal. However, Tim Ashton is no longer the portfolio holder at the county council and it is now led by the Labour party.
In conclusion, I believe that my constituents in Carnforth have made a strong case for the mail line platforms to be reinstated. I would urge the Minister to ensure that Lancashire county council is made aware of this positive case and is encouraged to conduct a feasibility study, so that the platforms can be restored and Carnforth can once again be a prosperous station which would serve the public as a station should. Mr Davies, thank you so much for letting me address the House.
May I take this opportunity, Mr Davies, to wish you, hon. Members and all the staff of the House a very merry Christmas?
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing the debate—and indeed, on securing one of the last items of parliamentary business for this term. I also welcome the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) to the Front Bench at a transport debate, and I congratulate her on her new role as a rail Minister replacement service. I know that she is familiar with a number of the issues being discussed today, and I hope that she will address the points raised by the hon. Gentleman.
As the hon. Gentleman said, Carnforth station is known internationally as the main filming location for “Brief Encounter”. I am sure that the film’s many fans would argue that it is beyond criticism, but speaking as a proud native Lancastrian, I could suggest one improvement and say that it should have been set in Lancashire. Of course, “Brief Encounter” was inexplicably set in the home counties instead, but fortunately, the true location was given away in once scene, as perhaps those in the Gallery will know, by a platform board that advertised services to Hellifield, Skipton, Bradford and Leeds.
Carnforth station is part of Lancashire’s rich cultural and railway heritage, and I join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating the £1.4 million raised by the local community to build a visitors’ centre and restore the station’s buildings, including the famous refreshment room. The refreshment room was described by Celia Johnson’s character as— I will not try her accent—
“the most ordinary place in the world”,
but it certainly does not sound as though that could be said today.
Given the station’s past, I can well understand the frustration expressed by the hon. Gentleman over current service levels. As he said, the long-distance platforms were removed in 1970, and although Carnforth is still an important rail junction, only two platforms now remain in operation. Of course, the plot of “Brief Encounter” frequently relied on Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard being forced to part to change platforms, so I think it is fair to say that some of the romance would be lost today. And although some would say that the nation’s love affair with the railways has been rekindled—with passenger numbers doubling over the last 20 years—Carnforth’s former connections have not been restored.
We all know that there are serious capacity constraints on the west coast main line. It is both a vital transport artery for the north-west and the busiest mixed-use line in Europe. That means that improving services in one area can be detrimental to provision elsewhere. Indeed, I have seen some stations further south, near Stoke, that have had all their services withdrawn over the last decade. When the hon. Gentleman secured a debate on this subject in 2011, the then Transport Minister, the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), said:
“Initial analysis by the Department suggests that a call at Carnforth would require a stop at another station to be deleted.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 138.]
When the Minister responds, will she tell us whether that is still the Department’s understanding? What recent discussions has the Department held with Virgin Trains and First TransPennine Express regarding the possibility of stopping at Carnforth, if funding for restoring the platforms is identified? In addition, it would be good to know how the Government plan to make use of the additional paths on the west coast main line, once HS2 provides that essential capacity relief. Opposition Members support HS2, because it will transform the transport connections of the midlands and the north, providing crucial extra capacity and making new journeys possible.
HS2 Ltd has said that it is looking to recruit an experienced operations manager, with a view to planning how HS2 will interact with the existing network. Will the Minister say how the Department for Transport, and for that matter, the Treasury, will support HS2 Ltd’s work? Will it form part of a wider Government strategy for those new journeys? What assessment has been made of Network Rail’s “Better Connections” report, which identified some of the options for improving local journeys in the north?
Passengers will also want to see improvements to their existing services, and I am sure that they share concerns that the process for awarding the new Northern and TransPennine Express contracts has been delayed. Will the Minister confirm press reports that those contracts have been delayed as a result of overruns to the electrification programme? Can she give a revised date for the publication of those documents, which should have been produced this month? Will she also say whether any improvements are planned to the existing services between Barrow-in-Furness and Manchester airport, including to Lancaster, or to the services between Lancaster and Leeds?
I received a written answer, published yesterday, from the rail Minister, the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), confirming that the cost of the electrification programme has doubled and that TransPennine electrification has still not been costed. The delays are holding up plans to introduce additional trains to the north, and many of the passengers from Carnforth are still forced to board Pacers for their journeys on Northern services. As the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale will know, Pacers are essentially a 1970s British Leyland bus stuck on top of a freight train. They are uncomfortable; they are not compliant with disability access regulations; and they were never intended for many of the long-distance routes that they are used on today.
Of course, it must have seemed like a relief when the Chancellor announced in his autumn statement speech that he was
“replacing the ancient and unpopular Pacer carriages with new and modern trains”—[Official Report, 3 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 313.]
—but as we all know, the devil is in the detail. Indeed, when I turned to page 50 of the green book, it said that the Government would only
“encourage bidders to replace the outdated pacer trains”
“bring all the trains that remain up to modern standards”.
Will the Minister confirm that, in fact, there is no firm commitment to replace all the Pacer trains, and that passengers from Carnforth may be forced to use them for many years to come?
The truth is that this Government have broken their promise on getting rid of the Pacers, even when passengers have seen their fares rise by 20% since 2010. Pacers may be used on Northern services, but TransPennine Express also has serious rolling stock problems to confront. TransPennine Express operates some of the most overcrowded trains in the country, but it is about to lose 13% of its fleet. The Department knew last October that nine TransPennine Express trains would be transferring to Chiltern. The Secretary of State saw a copy of the new lease agreement and did not object. However, without those trains, the operator’s improved May timetable cannot work, and 14 months on, there still is not a solution from the DFT. Indeed, we have been told since March that an answer was on the way, but we have not had it yet. However, we have learned that Ministers are sounding out manufacturers over a possible emergency order of new, diesel trains. That is just nine months after the Rail Delivery Group said that on current assumptions,
“no new diesel vehicles (or other self-powered vehicles) would be required to be built in either CP5 or CP6.”
It is clear that the Government’s plans for the north’s railways are falling apart. Prospective additional trains are stuck in the sidings; electrification is running close to the wire; and passengers are left to foot the bill. Those are some of the immediate issues that affect all rail passengers in the north, and I urge the Government to reconsider their approach to them, alongside the calls to restore Carnforth station’s mainline status. We need to ensure that the north receives improvements to its rail services in both the short and the long term. The cross-party consensus on the need to invest in the railways is immensely valuable, and I hope that I can speak for both sides of the House in saying that we all want to ensure that investment in the north is no brief affair.
I am sure that those who have campaigned for years to restore those mainline platforms must occasionally feel like Trevor Howard as Dr Alec Harvey, who said that
“it seems an eternity since that train went out of the station”,
or like Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, who said:
“This can’t last. This misery can’t last.”
I wish those campaigners well and I hope that the Minister will address the points raised when she sums up the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing a further debate on Carnforth station, but first may I extend apologies to you, Mr Davies, to my hon. Friend and to the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry)? She is unable to be here to respond to the debate. She will write to our hon. Friend and she pays tribute to the campaigning that he continues to do for his constituents on this important issue.
As has been pointed out, this is my debut at the Dispatch Box, and it is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, especially as we served together on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham South for her warm welcome and her—dare I say it?—little joke. I am sure that it could go down well in a Christmas cracker, and I will use it again myself at my next constituency do.
As has been eloquently said, many people will be familiar with Carnforth station only as the setting for Noël Coward’s famous 1945 film “Brief Encounter”, which is commemorated in the excellent heritage centre and refreshment room. Indeed, when I informed my mother this morning about my debut today, she said that she had visited the heritage centre and would thoroughly recommend it to others. However, as my hon. Friend has so eloquently explained, this is about more than a heritage centre. The station plays an important role in supporting the economy of north Lancashire. Good transport links, such as the Furness line linking Carnforth with Barrow, Lancaster and beyond and the links to Morecambe, Skipton and Leeds, are essential to support a growing economy. I acknowledge the importance of good rail services and connections to delivering the economic priorities of our local partners in Lancashire and Cumbria.
I will turn shortly to my hon. Friend’s main concern, the question of reinstating the mainline platforms, on which he has spoken with great clarity, but I want first to assure him that the prospects for Carnforth station are good even without that development. As he observed, Carnforth station has seen encouraging growth in the past few years. The Office of Rail Regulation statistics show that 206,590 passengers used the station in 2013-14. That was an increase of 10,000 on the previous year and 29,000 higher than in 2009-10. We want this station and the services using it to continue to prosper, and this Government’s plans for record investment in the railways and the refranchising programme will help to ensure that.
Long-distance connections from the south, via a change at Lancaster, have been enhanced. From December 2013, Virgin Trains combined the hourly Birmingham to Scotland service with a London to Birmingham service, which improved connectivity from Lancaster to places such as Birmingham International, Coventry and Milton Keynes. Additional capacity has been provided on Virgin Trains services, with 106 additional Pendolino vehicles added to the fleet in 2012.
I recognise that the reduction in through services between Carnforth and Manchester from December 2013 caused much local disappointment. The effect on services to Carnforth is the result of a new timetable that introduced a new electrified TransPennine Express service between Manchester and Scotland from May 2014. The introduction of new electric trains has facilitated an increase in services, including a fifth TransPennine Express train each hour to increase capacity between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York. Additional TPE services between Manchester, Lancaster and Scotland now offer additional capacity on that popular route.
TransPennine Express has had to decide on the best balance of services to meet its passengers’ needs across the franchise. To provide additional services and capacity on the North TransPennine and Manchester to Scotland routes has required amendments to the overall timetable. Every effort has been made to retain as many services as is practical. Carnforth and stations on the Furness line are being served by through services to and from Manchester airport over and above the minimum number required by the May 2014 passenger service requirement on Mondays to Saturdays.
Let me turn to future developments. To address record and growing demand, we are continuing to invest in the most significant rail modernisation programme for generations. Network Rail’s northern hub programme, together with electrification of routes in the north-west, including the recently announced confirmation of electrification of the Windermere branch, and the North TransPennine line and other enhancements—together adding up to more than £1 billion of investment—will transform rail connectivity across the whole of the north of England by increasing capacity, reducing journey times and facilitating the introduction of cleaner, more reliable electric trains and new direct services. Those investments provide an essential foundation to the wider plans for a northern powerhouse on which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has spoken in recent months. That includes Government backing for the development of a high-speed rail link—HS3—further to improve connectivity between our great northern cities. I am particularly keen to see that happen, because although I represent a Suffolk constituency, I was born in Lancashire and spent my early years there.
As I mentioned, new electric services between Manchester and Scotland and a fifth train per hour on the North TransPennine route have already been introduced. However, there is much more to come. The transformation of Manchester Victoria station is nearly complete, and other schemes will come on-stream in the next few years.
Our new franchising programme is key to delivering the benefits to passengers of the investment. A new directly awarded franchise agreement with Northern Rail, agreed in March this year, sets challenging new targets for customer service. Shortly after that, we concluded an agreement to provide four-coach electric trains on Northern Rail services between Liverpool and Manchester. Those will commence passenger service early in 2015, with further electric trains due to enter service on local routes in the north-west in the next few years.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am not in a position to give her an answer today, but I am sure that if there are questions that I do not manage to cover in my response, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will write to her.
In June, we launched the competitions for the next TransPennine Express and Northern franchises—they are due to start in February 2016—with a consultation document. We have ambitious plans for rail in the north of England to support the growth of the economy in the north, and those franchises will be key to transforming the way in which rail contributes to communities and businesses across the region—including Carnforth—building on our investment. I am very pleased that we are taking the franchises forward in partnership with the Rail North association of local transport authorities from across the north of England, including Lancashire and Cumbria county councils. Our developing partnership with Rail North is bringing a much stronger local focus to the franchises.
The consultation on the franchises posed important questions relating to the future operation of the Furness line, including the possibility of transferring the Furness line stations and services from TransPennine Express to Northern, and sought views on the appropriate number of through services and shuttle services to Lancaster and which destinations should be served by the through services. We received more than 20,000 responses to the consultation. Those included representations from the Carnforth railway action group, authored, I believe, by Peter Yates, to whom I pay tribute.
I welcome the fact that the response to the consultation has been so strong. It is important for us to hear the views of the public and stakeholders, so that we can take those into account in developing the specifications for the two franchises. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale that before reaching final decisions, we will give very careful consideration to the views expressed. I hope that he will understand that I cannot go further at this stage. The invitations to tender for the franchises are due to be issued early next year.
Work is already under way, led by Network Rail, to consider the strategic priorities for further investment in our railways in the next control period from 2019. Network Rail is undertaking a long-term planning process in consultation with industry partners and other stakeholders, including local enterprise partnerships, to develop the industry’s priorities and inform the Government’s next rail investment strategy. Key future stages relevant to the services at Carnforth are a refresh of the industry’s electrification strategy, which is due for publication for consultation in spring next year, and the northern route study, on which work is due to commence in early 2016.
I recognise that there is strong local interest in the potential for the electrification of the Furness line. My hon. Friend may be aware that to inform decisions on the next generation of electrification projects in the north of England, the Secretary of State announced in December last year the creation of a taskforce consisting of three MPs from the north of England, Network Rail and two council leaders nominated by Rail North to advise him on the priorities.
The taskforce is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale that it is carefully considering all remaining non-electrified rail lines in the north of England, including both the lines that serve Carnforth. The taskforce expects to submit its interim report in early 2015, to enable its recommendations to be considered alongside Network Rail’s draft electrification strategy. Through a supporting stakeholder working group, which includes local authorities, the taskforce is drawing on a wide range of relevant information including local enterprise partnerships’ strategic economic plans.
Looking further ahead, to provide the capacity and connectivity the country needs in the longer term, the Government continue to progress High Speed 2. I welcome my hon. Friend’s support, and the support of the hon. Member for Nottingham South, for that vital infrastructure project. As has been noted, HS2 offers the prospect of faster connections from Carnforth and the Furness line to London and the midlands. We are considering the impact of HS2 on other routes, and Network Rail is closely involved in the discussions. The Government are fully behind HS2, and the Bill is being considered in Select Committee.
I have heard my hon. Friend’s strong representations in favour of the reinstatement of the mainline platforms at Carnforth station. Government policy makes it clear that it is for local bodies to decide whether that would be the best way to meet local transport needs. Local bodies would have to prioritise that solution to receive funding from the resources that the Government make available to local bodies through the local growth fund, and they have not chosen to do so to date. The Department would, of course, be happy to provide advice and guidance should those local bodies change their minds.
My understanding is that reinstating the platforms is within the remit of the county council, in any case. Will my hon. Friend join me in some kind of communication with the county council to ask it to push forward a feasibility study for these platforms to be reinstated?
My hon. Friend has taken the words right out of my mouth. I urge the council to give every support to the project that he is backing so strongly; it would be of great merit for the residents of Carnforth. Although not everyone might agree with my hon. Friend that Carnforth station is the centre of the rail universe, it is an important connection for many people and businesses in that community.
My hon. Friend alluded to the process followed to close the platforms in the 1970s. I assure him that the Government are of the opinion that the mainline platforms were correctly closed. There was no statutory requirement at the time for any form of consent to be sought for the partial closure of a station. I understand that the Department wrote to his constituent in detail on the matter on 8 December this year.
I hope that my hon. Friend can persuade the council to look in more depth at the possibility of reopening the platforms. It may be helpful, however, to remind hon. Members of some of the operational and commercial challenges that would need to be addressed in developing any viable proposal. A key issue is whether a proposal to stop mainline services at reinstated platforms at Carnforth would work operationally and commercially. As was indicated in the last debate on the subject in July 2011, line capacity would be reduced.
The west coast main line is heavily used, with up to three long-distance services per hour between London, Birmingham and Manchester, and Glasgow and Edinburgh, plus regular freight services. Those trains are already popular and well loaded, and further growth is expected. Network Rail’s 2011 route utilisation strategy for the west coast main line corroborates the heavy usage of the line and the resulting capacity problems.
The journey time of a service that called at reinstated platforms at Carnforth would be increased. Further examination, with Network Rail and the relevant train operator, would be required to determine the potential commercial impact of that, and to determine the impact of such a stop on other services that used the line. The modernisation of the west coast main line and the introduction of the December 2008 timetable delivered some significant journey time reductions and more frequent services, which have delivered significant revenue growth since December 2008 and increased rail’s share of the total travel market on the routes served by the west coast main line. Rail serves those markets well, and there are strong calls for further journey time reductions.
My hon. Friend referred to the potential impact of HS2. I caution that released capacity is likely to be on sections of the west coast main line further to the south that are bypassed by the new high-speed line. Nevertheless, the advent of HS2 services will provide a further useful stimulus to rail demand in the area. All those issues, and others, mean that stopping any service at Carnforth could involve a number of trade-offs, now and in the future, which are less straightforward than they might first seem.
It is already possible to travel directly between Carnforth and stations to the south, including Preston and Manchester. As my hon. Friend has noted, that means that the main benefits of stopping Windermere services at reinstated mainline platforms at Carnforth would be to create better journey opportunities between Carnforth and stations to the north, including Oxenholme, Penrith, and Carlisle, and to provide better connections to the north from other stations on the Furness and Skipton lines.
I certainly do not want to rule out the possibility of developing a viable proposition at some point, but local authorities and local enterprise partnerships must want it to progress, and they must back it financially. They did not identify such a proposition as a priority in their response to the franchise consultation. The position of the current holder of the TransPennine Express franchise is encouraging, but that franchise is coming to an end and my hon. Friend will need to encourage the local authority to engage with the shortlisted bidders for the new franchise as they develop their bids next year.
I was about to answer one of the hon. Lady’s questions. She asked about the delay to Northern invitations to tender. My understanding is that, as stated by the Chancellor in the autumn statement, the invitations to tender will be published in early 2015, but the date for publication will be announced in due course. Does the hon. Lady still want to intervene?
In conclusion, I should say that my hon. Friend has been a real champion for his constituents. He has achieved a lot for them, including the securing of the Heysham-M6 link road. I can see how hard he is working for his constituents on this important rail matter. I hope I have been able to assure him that the Government’s plans to invest in, and develop the services on, the rail network to address record levels of demand provide the conditions under which Carnforth station can continue to prosper and develop its important role in supporting the economy of north Lancashire.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s continued and assiduous campaigning on the matter, and I hope that he will pursue the case for reinstating the mainline platforms with Lancashire county council and the local enterprise partnership. They would need to take the lead, working with Network Rail and a train operator, in establishing whether there is an operationally and financially viable proposition.
If there are questions that I have not been able to cover, I will ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to write and respond to those points. As we approach the busiest weekend of the year for rail services, I wish all hon. Members a merry Christmas and I hope that everyone gets home safely on the train tonight.
I am grateful to you, Mr Davies, for the opportunity to thank Members for their cross-party, collegiate support for reinstating the platforms at Carnforth station. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), and I congratulate her on her sterling work at the Dispatch Box. I also thank her for helping me with this subject on every possible occasion.
Question put and agreed to.