Skip to main content

Nottingham Express Transit Extension

Volume 614: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

I note the rush as everybody wants to join in this debate. They all seem to be leaving—what a surprise! I warmly welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who is sitting on the Front Bench—and rightly so. Who better than the hon. Member who represents Blackpool to deal with and respond to this debate about the extension of the tram system through my constituency and onwards to Toton.

I want to make it clear that this short debate is not about the rights and wrongs of trams or about funding. This debate is about looking at what happened as the tram works took over two years to be completed—an undoubted nightmare for residents and my business community. It is about learning lessons to ensure that we never get a repeat of an unfortunate and wholly unacceptable tale of woe over two years and eight months. I lived in Nottingham for about 25 years until I was elected in 2010 and I use the tram. It is a pleasant and modern form of public transport. I am not anti-tram, but I am anti the experiences of so many of my constituents.

The tram network cost £570 million. It was unfortunately eight months late. It has been a sorry tale. A photograph speaks a million words, so I have been asking people to look at my website and to follow the photographs that I have been tweeting because they really show what has been a nightmare for my constituents. We have to learn the lessons. We must also be aware that often when we undertake these huge pieces of infrastructure, many people feel that they have suffered incredible pain and have not actually gained much themselves.

I want to start with what is a big problem in our society. A huge swathe of our society feels that they have no voice post-referendum. They feel disconnected and unrepresented; in short, they feel powerless. A large number of my constituents in the affected area feel the same. I want to congratulate a Facebook page called the “NET Tram Extension Ranting Room”. It was created by one of my constituents, a man called Tony Smith. He will forgive me if I say that he was a completely ordinary person—in fact, he is a rather remarkable person. He set up the Facebook page in real frustration in the face of these tram works. As events have taken place, it has emerged that since about the 1990s people have, understandably, felt in favour of the tram. They want better transport—“We like it; it’s a good idea.” However, what we do not like is when people use aliases; they do things online and offline in their campaigning that create an atmosphere in which people feel, “I don’t agree with that, but I have no voice. I have no say. I can’t get involved in this. When I go to a public meeting, I am howled down.” People feel powerless, as happened in this case in the run-up to the public inquiry in about 2007.

I urge the Minister to examine public inquiries. I will write to him in more detail about how I feel we can ensure that ordinary people’s voices are genuinely heard. I am very concerned about some of these online questionnaires, which are very prescriptive, and about the fact that people can organise in campaign groups and then misuse social media to make out that they have more supporters and followers than they have. In public inquiries, there is no genuine equality of arms. We were left dealing with this barrage of local authorities—the city council, the borough council and the county council—and the people who wanted to build the tram. They have the ability and the resources to employ experts, counsel and sometimes Queen’s counsel, although I make no complaint about any of these things. Often the campaign groups can do that, if they are well organised and have some money together, whereas an ordinary citizen often relies on their borough councillor. They are well meaning, good people, but they are nothing like as well prepared and do not have all the resources that others have. What has come out of the experience in my constituency is that ordinary people living on the very streets that were about to be dug up felt that they had no voice and no say. We must make sure that we have real equality of arms in public inquiries, so that everybody can be heard and everybody can be represented.

The “ranting room”, as it is now called, has almost 1,950 members. It is not always pretty, as the language is often fruity and I would completely dissociate myself from some of the comments. But this is a place where genuine, ordinary people came together to protest as they saw their community being dug up. They felt completely disfranchised and saw their lives being turned over. Out of this has come much good: a community has been formed; there have been a few romances, and lots of friendships have been made; and there has been a continuing desire to hold people to account and make sure that the lessons are learned.

What are those lessons? First, we must make sure there is proper consultation and that ordinary people feel that they have a voice and it is heard. We also must ensure that we plan properly for these huge pieces of infrastructure. We are looking towards some of the work that the Government have, quite properly embarked on, such as HS2. I am a great fan of HS2 and I stood on a clear platform of supporting it; the East Midlands Hub is coming to Toton, and that is extremely good news. I believe it is supported by the majority of people in my constituency. I believe the Minister has also had a project in his constituency, so he knows that these pieces of infrastructure must be done properly. Let us learn from these various experiences.

On proper planning, we must make clear the benefits that we seek to achieve. Obviously, if the tram system in Nottingham is extended into a place such as Toton—the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) is here and I know that the other line went to Clifton—the fundamental benefit will be to provide good public transport, not only for all those people who live along the line but for commuters who use the park-and-rides at the terminuses. We know that we want to get cars off the road, to get people into the city more quickly and to reduce emissions—those are all laudable things. I have no difficulty with making sure that people can catch the tram and go to the Queen’s Medical Centre, the Central College in my constituency or Nottingham University. These are all good things.

We should be looking with more care at the business cases often attached to these projects, and ensuring that some of the big claims that are made are accurate. The 2011 business case said that 10,000 jobs would be created by the extension of the Nottingham tram system. Indeed, it said that the town of Beeston, which sits in my constituency, would be regenerated and transformed.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

I think that there may be some hollow laughter from people in Beeston, which is a great town and a wonderful place with great independent shops, cafés, bars and fabulous pubs, as they are yet to see this regeneration and transformation. This is a town that was effectively strangled by the works. The works were meant to last for two years; in fact, they went on for an extra eight months. Yes, we do have a shiny new tram, and Beeston High Road, where my constituency office sits, looks good. Unfortunately, it is bereft of shoppers, and the town centre needs urgent and radical improvement. All of those things could have been done when the town was being dug up, but, sadly, they were not, and that was a really big and serious failure.

If we are creating huge pieces of infrastructure, we must look at the full picture so that when the infrastructure is completed in these residential, urban and suburban areas, everything is there that we want—the place is sorted out and the new transport is in place. Then the town can recover from what has been an extraordinary and damaging experience for people.

I have been talking about businesses, but residents too have been affected. I am thinking of the residents on Lower Road and Fletcher Road, two lovely, quiet cul-de-sacs, who suddenly found a major infrastructure project and power drills literally by their front doors. They were affected not just for a few weeks, but month after month. Indeed, it became year after year, and they had to live through it all—the photographs really do say it all. The issues still go on, because now we have problems with the drains. It is as if everything has been dug up and started again.

In that planning, it is also very important that tiny things are considered. They may seem very minor, but they are in fact hugely important. I am talking about the small details, the stuff of life that really makes a difference to the quality of people’s lives. It makes a difference as to whether people feel engaged with something or totally alienated by it. Apparently, Sky News used to look at my email newsletter when I was raging on about these works and the inconvenience and upset that they were causing to my constituents. This may seem a small point, but it was incredibly important that my constituents could not get the fencing that they said they had been promised to screen the track. These were people who had enjoyed a green vista, either over the allotments or over a piece of green open space. The tram comes along, and they have all the disruption and then they find that they cannot get the right height of fence. I know it sounds small, but for people living on Brookland Drive, Lime Grove Avenue or Holkham Avenue, it meant an awful lot and we had to fight like tigers to get the right fence.

I pay tribute to the City Council in Nottingham, and, essentially, I understand what was happening. In effect, the tram benefits the citizens of Nottingham. It goes through my constituency, and it does benefit those people who choose to use it, but the pain that it has caused has been extraordinary. We have a democratic gap in accountability. It is the people of Beeston and Chilwell who have suffered all this disruption, but the accountable authority was not their local council, but the city council. With great respect to John Collins, the leader of the city council and a man I like—he is not from the same political party but that does not matter; he would always meet me and try to help—this sounds harsh, but it was never in the city council’s interests to sort it all out, because its members were not going to take the hit at the ballot box when the next set of elections came along. We need to ensure that there is some better way of doing things, so that there is genuine accountability when things do not go right.

Construction was a nightmare. We need good, responsible and efficient construction and proper communications with people. One of the things that drove wonderful community champions—a lot of good came out of this for the community, including wonderful people such as Allison Dobbs, who suddenly stepped up and almost devoted her life to representing people—was this terrible lack of communication. People were literally being told, “Oh, by the way, in two days’ time you’re moving out of your home for a week or so because we’re going to work through the night.” Carole Wall stepped forward as well. I also have to mention Lloyd Wildish, a man who had lived on Lower Road all his life, but who was ignored when he talked about the state of what was under the roads—his local knowledge was ignored. Obviously, construction has to be done on time, but we have to make sure that the works are done in a reasonably civilised way so that people’s lives are not as blighted as they were when this huge piece of infrastructure was being built on their road.

I have a photograph of somebody on High Road. Her front room is almost on the pavement, and there is a man with an enormous drill leaning against a board that is leaning against her front window. That was the reality of life for people throughout the tram works. There must be a better way of doing things so that we take much more care about the lives of people living near these major pieces of infrastructure.

On working times, I accept that we have to crack a lot of eggs when we are doing these sorts of projects. Obviously, they can be hugely beneficial, but there must be better ways of organising things so that we reduce the dust, the noise and even the rats. As I say, it was a terrible experience for the residents, and, for many of them, it is one they will not forget. By way of example, we were told that High Road, which is where my constituency office is, would be closed in one direction for six months and then in the other direction for another six months. In the event, the whole road was closed for a year. Indeed, I brought my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) to see, and I do not think he could believe it. I brought my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) down, and I do not think our former Chancellor could believe the scale of the works and the incredible adverse impact they were having on business and the lives of ordinary people. Again, when it comes to construction, there has to be better organisation. When we promise people, by way of example, that there will be good communication, we should make sure that we deliver. Literally putting a leaflet through a letterbox the night before some huge disruption takes place is simply not acceptable.

Let me turn to compensation. Part of the public inquiry talked about how businesses would be compensated, and plans were put in place. In the event, the area in which businesses could claim was far too restrictive. Then, as the whole of High Road was closed down and businesses were on the brink, frankly, of going under, it took a campaign to get funds, but we did it: we had a petition, we went to the city, we went to the county council and we got extra funds for, effectively, an emergency hardship fund. Again, I pay credit to the officials at Broxtowe Borough Council, at the city and at the county who did everything they could to speed that up, but it took an awful lot of aggravation from their Member of Parliament to achieve that. It should not take that; it should not need me to have to fire off emails, and go to the press and so on to make sure that businesses are properly compensated and properly taken care of.

It could be argued that that compensation should continue as businesses try to make good the damage that has been caused to the town of Beeston. For two years, as I said, the town was in the stranglehold of these construction works. We all know how we shop; most of us are creatures of habit. Of course, what has happened is that a large number of people have simply gone elsewhere and formed new shopping habits. I do not mean any disrespect to Long Eaton in Derbyshire—it is a very nice place—but people have undoubtedly gone off to Long Eaton to go shopping. They have formed new shopping habits, and now we have to drag them back—well, I do not want to drag them back; I want to encourage them back—to their previous habit of shopping in Beeston, but that takes a lot of effort. Again, it needs proper planning, and we need to do that before the event, not while the nightmare is unfolding.

For residents, however, there was no compensation at all. There was no compensation for the dust, the noise and the piledrivers, day after day, month after month, with people walking on duckboards with their shopping, their car parked further down the road, slipping in the dark with no streetlights. There was no compensation for that loss of amenity and that destruction of the quality of life. I urge the Minister to look at this when we go on to other big pieces of infrastructure projects, to make sure that we do not just dismiss residents and think, “Oh, they’ll put up with it. We’re cracking these few eggs to create this glorious omelette, and when the tram”—or the road, or HS2, or whatever it is—“comes, they’ll see that it was all worth it.” I have to tell the House that many of my constituents do not believe it has been worth it, by any means—and it still goes on. This is such a small thing, but I really hope that as a result of this debate somebody could go and put in the flowerbed that was promised, cut the grass, as was promised, and make the entrance to the lovely cul-de-sac that has been ripped up on Lower Road, going on to Fletcher Road, look good. That would give the residents just something back after everything that they have been through.

I do not want to sound overly negative, but there are those—some of whom have not always covered themselves with much glory in the way they have campaigned in favour of a further extension of the tram—who now seek to persuade the city council to extend the route up into Kimberley and onwards into Eastwood. I do not represent Eastwood, but I do represent Kimberley. The good people of Kimberley have looked at what has happened in Beeston and share my concern that they will find that the works will not be worth it. I certainly will not support any extension of the tram works to anywhere else until such time as we have learned the lessons.

The right hon. Lady rightly asks the Minister to look at the lessons that can be learned from this important infrastructure project, which created real hardship for many of my constituents—residents and businesses—as it did for hers. Does she agree, however, that Nottingham City Council is to be congratulated on creating a world-class public transport system, such that the Campaign for Better Transport has recognised Nottingham as the least car-dependent city? The tram is reducing congestion, not just for those who use it but for those who drive on our city’s roads, cutting carbon emissions, and tackling air quality, which must be an issue in her constituency as it is in the centre of Nottingham.

Nottingham is not alone in having a tram system. Many other great cities in our country have tram systems, and many of the lessons to be learned will apply to them too. There is nothing new in it.

I like the tram, but, my goodness, we are going to need to have more debates in this place about the cost of trams, and the fact that they have to connect with other types of transport. That is absolutely critical. It is a crying shame that cyclists have found that the tram tracks are dangerous. I do not think there is any doubt about that, but if there is, we will have another debate about it, and I look forward to that. We have to connect up transport. Another thing that has come out of this is that there are now parts of my constituency where people cannot use their bicycle because of the narrowness of the route. This also applies to HS2. It is critical that we get the routes right so that we do not have a situation where a tram track, as in my constituency, is winding around when there was no doubt a better route that would have far better delivered people along the transport system and reduced the amount of disruption.

As I say, there are lessons to be learned. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister coming to Beeston, seeing the tram system, and speaking to my brilliant constituents. I know that he will take up these lessons and, I hope, apply them to all infrastructure projects as they go forward.

It was a pleasure to listen to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who spoke with her customary vim and vigour. It is fair to say that she and I share a great deal of experience of major tram works in our constituencies. They are not always plain sailing, particularly when they happen to cross the borough boundary of the sponsoring authority. That can cause problems and I recognise in what she has said a lot of my own past seven years as a Member of Parliament.

The Government are supportive of light rail in the right place. It is clear that it is a mode of transport that is convenient, reliable and increasingly popular. It also has considerable scope for innovation, particularly where it offers an alternative to expensive heavy rail solutions to potential transport problems. More people are travelling by tram and light rail than at any time since records began in 1983, with a 5.8% increase in the past year alone. The improvements being made to services are creating not just transport systems that people can rely on, but jobs, growth and opportunity—and the fly that seems to have taken an overly close interest in my head as I speak—as part of building an economy that works for everybody.

Recent analysis of six light rail networks by Transport Focus shows that overall journey satisfaction increased to 92% in 2015, and the figure is an incredible 98% in Nottingham. Those are the types of satisfaction figures that every politician dreams of—if we could but get them. That is why the Government have committed £371 million to the overall phase 2 of the Nottingham tram system.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend does not need me to highlight the importance of Greater Nottingham’s economy, which is worth approximately £10.7 billion and supports about 300,000 locally based jobs. Nottingham is a regional capital and an important industrial and commercial centre. It is vital that it has a transport system that is reliable and can support customers, shoppers, commuters and visitors.

The light rail system is a key element in Greater Nottingham’s transport strategy. Since phase 1 opened, it has served more than 10 million passengers a year, taking approximately 3 million car journeys off the local roads and improving accessibility for local communities. Phase 2 has been open for just over a year, and it is already clear that it is boosting the local economy and improving employment levels and supply chain expenditure in the local area.

There are an immense number of positives that I could list at great length in the time available, but I acknowledge my right hon. Friend’s point that it has not all been plain sailing. Work on the extension presented a number of challenges, which affected the local community. Closing two main roads for six months for safety reasons had an immense impact on local communities, affecting trade for local businesses. During the Blackpool upgrade the centre of Cleveleys was cut off for a while and many of the businesses on Lord Street in the neighbouring town of Fleetwood also had to shut down, so I have seen for myself the impact that can have on a local community.

Although it is inevitable that any such project is going to cause disruption to third parties, including local residents and businesses, that needs to be properly and effectively managed and planned, in co-operation with the local community. I know that efforts were made by the promoters to help minimise the impact, but it is always clear that more can be done. I know that the promoters undertook a number of additional measures to help deal with the problems encountered along the way, including a discretionary financial package for small businesses and logistic support for traders and visitors during the particularly intrusive works. I suspect that my right hon. Friend herself had a significant hand in the development of much of that. I think that such measures need to be put in place much earlier in the development of such schemes, so that businesses and residents have greater certainty about what help will come their way.

I know that there were particular concerns about communication with stakeholders and local people, and I agree entirely that engagement with businesses and residents must be undertaken, both at the time of the scheme’s original development and throughout its construction, and in a timely fashion so that no one is taken unawares.

I am convinced that more can always be done in such situations. Uncertainty about both the timescale and the timeliness of works can harm small businesses and the decisions that people make about how they spend their lives, where they live and what they do with their properties. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend that it is vital that lessons are learned in the construction of all major local infrastructure projects. I understand that, in this particular case, a lessons learned report is due to be published shortly. It will have to focus on issues such as project programming; delivery planning; how utility diversions can be managed better; the nature and extent of disruption to third parties; and the implementation of traffic management measures.

Both the Department and I will want to study the outcomes and conclusions of that report as we consider what further steps are required. I agree that we need to apply these lessons to future infrastructure projects to do all we can to minimise negative impacts, and we will work with UK Tram which represents the wider light rail sector to disseminate these findings.

I will be delighted to come to Beeston when we can fit a visit into our diaries and I look forward to meeting my right hon. Friend’s constituents. I take note of her points about cycling safety. I have seen for myself in Blackpool that what appears to be a cycle path can be all too inviting, when in fact it is not a cycle path at all—it is a tram track, and cycles have no place on tram tracks. I entirely support the points that she makes on that.

I commend the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) for raising important points about taking care during infrastructure construction, but my constituents use the tram, they love it and they would like it to extend eventually to the east side of the city.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I hope I have made it clear that I think there are immense benefits from light rail, both in Nottingham and around the country, but those positive aspects should not minimise the impact on those who live immediately adjacent to the tram tracks, who may encounter disruption. In my constituency the tram track has been there for 100 years, so when it was upgraded the disruption was no surprise to anyone. When we are planning new tram routes, that may come as more of a surprise to people, who were not expecting the route to appear on a particular road. It will always be a case, I suppose, of horses for courses.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we might have an interesting debate in this place about the safety of tram tracks and bicycles? There are many examples in Sheffield and Edinburgh, I believe, and not just in Nottingham, of people who have suffered. I have a constituent who nearly died as a result of their wheels getting stuck in tram tracks. Does my hon. Friend share my concern? I can assure him that in a large part of the scheme in Nottingham, including in my constituency, the tram track and cycle routes are coterminous.

My right hon. Friend tempts me into what risks becoming a specialist subject of mine—the safety of the tram tracks in my own constituency. Whenever the road and the tram occupy the same space, it can be very difficult, particularly for visitors who are not familiar with the road layout. For Blackpool, being a tourist town, that is a particular concern. People do not realise that the tram track is in fact the tram track. I will be delighted to have that debate at some point. My frustration might be that I have to be the replying Minister, who therefore cannot take part in it.

I noted my right hon. Friend’s important points about the public inquiry system. The process has to be collaborative from the beginning. As she noted, the project had to follow proper planning approval processes prior to construction, leading to a public inquiry. These inquiries are overseen by an independent inspector and the process allows both supporters and objectors to raise concerns, including consideration of the route alignment, whether alternative modes could be considered, and the anticipated transport, regeneration, environmental and socio-economic impact and benefits of such a scheme. As she knows, just such a public inquiry was held for Nottingham express transit phase 2, which would have considered views of all parties. However, I genuinely hear the points that she makes about the need for a balanced approach to ensure that everybody who has an interest gets a fair chance to have their say, and that those contributions are considered in the round, rather than it being a case of he who shouts loudest. I look forward to hearing her views when she writes to me and we will look closely at them.

I note why the issue is important, with HS2 potentially coming to Toton. I know that the Secretary of State is yet to make an official decision, but I gather that no alternative location is currently being considered. That may well mean a serious application to extend the tramway to Toton, which would raise all these concerns yet again. We have to learn from what we did the first time around and ensure that, if the tramway is extended, those mistakes are not made again.

In conclusion, we will continue to work with the light rail and tram sector to help to bring down costs, but the decision over which schemes to develop will continue to rest with local areas. That said, it is vital that lessons are learned about minimising disruption with all sorts of infrastructure projects, allowing more communities around the country a say in how light rail—or, indeed, other solutions—is developed to benefit their communities.

I am a Minister with responsibility for light rail who is not unacquainted with trams. Light rail as a whole will have an important role to play, but it has to happen with communities and not simply to them. That will be my watchword as we move forward. I hope that we will see the growth of light rail across the country where it is most appropriate, working with the communities who will be affected, not against them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.