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Rail Connectivity

Volume 634: debated on Friday 19 January 2018

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

Rail connectivity between towns and cities represents the tool by which our local economies prosper, our businesses thrive, our young people travel for employment and educational opportunities, our skills gaps narrow, social isolation can be tackled and leisure facilities accessed, and, most importantly, social mobility is enhanced.

Over the past few months the Government have acknowledged the importance of rail connectivity. In report after report transport and infrastructure have been rightly highlighted as major tools to solve some of the biggest problems we face in society. However, I am increasingly concerned that these statements are empty words that are not backed with the commitment or investment deserved. Let us consider each of these reports in turn.

After the publication of the Government’s rail strategy, I welcomed the announcement that the Government would consider reopening lines closed in the 1960s to unlock housing and development. However, just a glance at the detail of this announcement shows that these lines have already been announced by the Government, and none of these proposals is due to benefit Greater Manchester’s transport system. This is a strong proposal let down, yet again, by the detail.

In the autumn Budget, we heard from the Chancellor that our productivity is flat-lining and our economy is in urgent need of an investment boost. But instead of taking the immediate opportunity to announce infrastructure projects to boost our economy, create employment and link our towns and cities, the Government delivered a threadbare Budget that did not seek to remedy the problems we are facing today, let alone tomorrow.

The Government’s industrial strategy was then released, which contained many previously announced statements, some extremely broad policies and no commitment to invest in our post-industrial towns. At the exact time we needed an urgent plan, yet again we received nothing.

Earlier this week, we also saw Transport for the North’s “Strategic Transport Plan”. The Government hailed Transport for the North’s powers as “game-changing” but the reality is that the Government have created a powerless body at the mercy of the Transport Secretary. While I welcome the fact that our region now has a local body to champion the issue of its transport connectivity, Transport for the North does not have the power it needs to make these important decisions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disappointing that we will not see the investment that we had hoped for on the west coast to east coast lines, which are so important to our productivity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not just about my area; it is about connections to all our towns and cities, particularly in the north.

It is outrageous that the Government have only given TfN the powers to prepare a strategy and provide advice, and no power to implement such a strategy. That power still lies with the Secretary of State. Labour would give TfN those powers, but the Conservative Government are treating the north with characteristic contempt by failing to match our offer. However, within the detail of TfN’s plans, I was pleased to see Leigh listed as a major economic centre in the middle of four strategic corridors. The Government’s lack of support for TfN has hampered its ability to set out detailed transport plans, but I hope that when those plans arrive, they will lead to the transport improvements that we need in Leigh.

I have also received a letter from Transport for Greater Manchester this week stating its commitment to review the current lack of rail connectivity in Leigh, which I also welcome. However, following meetings with both TfGM and TfN recently, I have identified two key problems with the relationship between our regional transport bodies and the Government. First, I am concerned that investment from the Government is based on responding to growth rather than creating it. We cannot continue with this failed approach to investment that focuses on areas of existing growth without preparing our towns for the economy of the future.

Secondly, as I will discuss later, the Government are failing in their obligation to adequately fund these bodies. Therefore, TfN’s 30-year plan must ensure that our post-industrial towns are carried with the growth of our northern cities. Leigh was at the heart of the first industrial revolution, and we must now act to ensure that its residents are not merely spectators in the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

Poor rail connectivity is also having a direct impact on social mobility in our towns. The Social Mobility Commission recently concluded in its “State of the Nation” report that the

“worst performing areas for social mobility are no longer inner city areas, but remote rural and coastal areas, and former industrial areas”.

These outer towns such as Leigh are becoming ever more disconnected from our booming cities, and the commission subsequently placed Leigh in the lower rank of constituencies.

In my constituency, the extension of the London underground to Cockfosters allowed the area to flourish almost a century ago. Does my hon. Friend agree that transport connectivity is vital for social mobility and essential if an area is to grow and flourish?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are naming transport as one of the key indicators for social mobility. There are obviously many others, but transport connectivity is much needed.

Infrastructure is letting down the young people of Leigh. Despite their dedication and hard work, they are struggling to gain the necessary education, skills and employment to remain competitive. They are being let down, and to realise why we only need to read Alan Milburn’s letter of resignation as chair of the Social Mobility Commission. He wrote that the Government

“is understandably focused on Brexit and does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure that the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality. I do not doubt”—

the Prime Minister’s—

“personal belief in social justice, but I see little evidence of that being translated into meaningful action.”

There is no greater example of this than Leigh, which is in urgent need of investment today—not after our Brexit negotiations or in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time, but today. For the young people growing up in outer towns, we are talking about their futures. There are simply no second chances for them. Unless we act urgently to improve our nation’s connectivity, we are at serious risk of leaving behind a forgotten generation of young people who are unable to access the employment and education opportunities offered in our cities.

That brings me on to the specific transport situation that we face in Leigh. As a thriving town situated between Manchester and Liverpool, with nearby Warrington and Merseyside providing key employment and educational opportunities, transport is clearly critical to my constituents, and yet our town has no rail connectivity whatsoever. Indeed, we are the fifth largest town in the country with no rail connectivity.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the recent transport investment that Leigh has received. The guided busway into Manchester has proved to be a superb project, exceeding expectations, reducing journey times into Manchester and proving the importance of strategic investment into our town. However, the busway does not assist those travelling to work outside the city. For example, one constituent got in touch with me this week to tell me that his journey to work, which takes 40 minutes by car, is a two and a half hour journey by bus. Another constituent, Lynn, highlighted the impact on businesses, saying that if a customer wants to visit her shop from further afield by train, they get put off by having to use the bus for the final leg. The impact is felt not only by our young or our businesses. Cuts to public transport and the process of deregulation of our bus services have a huge impact on our most vulnerable and older people, and that impact cannot be overstated.

Rail connectivity cannot be happen on its own. There must be seamless integrated connectivity with road networks, cycle lanes and other public transport. Reducing congestion, noise and air pollution is also an important aspect of addressing detrimental health outcomes in our less-connected towns. While Leigh is an amazing constituency in which to live, perfectly situated as it is between many northern cities, a great place to bring up a family with its good and outstanding schools, and the fertile ground for businesses to invest, without efficient and comprehensive transport connectivity we are being held back. We are restricting business and economic growth, employment opportunities, and the life chances of our young people. Now is the time to act because, despite the Government’s best efforts, the northern powerhouse cannot succeed unless our towns are positioned as the engine of northern growth.

I anticipate that the Minister will respond by placing the weight of responsibility on regional transport bodies in the north and will insist, rightly, that it is for local bodies to determine the transport needs for local areas. However, the Government have not been funding those bodies adequately to allow investment in the medium to large projects that will mark the much-needed step change in our transport connectivity. Passing the buck to regional bodies, without giving them the resources to deliver, shows exactly how this Government treat the north: without any concern or ambition for the region to succeed.

When talking about the north’s transport woes, the Government must understand that the Opposition are not talking about an extra bus here and a new route there—that simply will not cut it. If the Government are serious about putting the passenger first, they must transform how they invest in all infrastructure, creating seamless connectivity. We need a total revolution in our approach to transport and infrastructure spending. We need the Government to commit to prioritising areas of poor social mobility and to invest in their infrastructure, bringing their local economies into the 21st century and making sure that no town is left behind.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) on securing this debate. As she knows, the Government are committed to creating a northern powerhouse to rebalance our economy. Improvements in transport connectivity are central to that and support a broader strategy for building that northern powerhouse, including investment in business, innovation, health, agriculture and culture, which the hon. Lady mentioned.

Between 2015 and 2020, the Government will spend over £13 billion improving and modernising northern transport—this is the biggest transport investment in the region for a generation—and we are also committed to giving the great towns and cities of the north more say over transport investment through Transport for the North. As part of that plan, the northern powerhouse rail programme aims to dramatically improve connections between major cities across the north of England. Transport for the North is considering a range of options, including whether other significant economic centres could be served by northern powerhouse rail. We will receive a business case from Transport for the North later this year.

Before addressing Leigh, I will highlight the significant transport investment already under way in Greater Manchester and across the north to support the northern powerhouse. We are investing around £40 billion in our network as part of our biggest rail modernisation programme for more than a century to provide faster journeys and more comfortable trains. That includes delivering improved journeys for passengers right across the north.

Through the growth deal process, the Government have provided the Greater Manchester local enterprise partnership with £663.4 million to support its investment in transport to provide a better integrated transport network across Greater Manchester. As part of the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises, and as part of the Great North Rail project that is currently being delivered, Wigan will benefit from the frequency of trains to Manchester via Atherton being increased to four an hour using newly refurbished trains. The rail route between Liverpool and Wigan has also been upgraded.

By 2033, up to 18 trains will be running each hour on High Speed 2, carrying up to 1,100 passengers each. HS2 will free up space on our existing railways for new commuter, regional and freight services. During construction, it will generate 25,000 jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships. It will also support growth in the wider economy, worth an additional 100,000 jobs.

The Government have given £2.5 million to Greater Manchester to develop a local growth strategy that will propose ways of spreading the benefits of HS2 beyond the immediate station vicinity and improving connectivity from HS2 stations to the wider conurbation. The Government will continue to work with Greater Manchester to help to deliver those plans.

Leigh will be able to access HS2 services from multiple locations, including Wigan, Manchester airport and Manchester Piccadilly, which is readily accessible by public transport from Leigh, including via the new busway. HS2 will also join the west coast main line at Golborne, south of Wigan, as well as at Crewe. By linking to the west coast main line, HS2 will deliver benefits to areas such as Preston and Lancaster in north-west England and all the way up to Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. Growth strategies developed by local areas will also play an important part in spreading the regeneration benefits of HS2 beyond those places it serves directly.

The Minister talks about connecting to HS2, but it will take more than an hour for some of my constituents in Mosley Common to travel into Wigan by public transport. How will they access HS2 in good time? It will take passengers less time to travel from Wigan to Birmingham.

I am pleased the hon. Lady does not deny all the benefits that HS2 will bring to the area. There has been investment in public services, and a lot of these decisions have been devolved to the local Mayor, whom she can challenge to take up the case. She cannot deny the opportunities that HS2 has opened up to the region.

As the Chancellor announced at the Budget, the £1.7 billion transforming cities fund will address weaknesses in city transport systems in order to raise productivity and spread prosperity. It will fund new local transport links, making it easier to travel between more prosperous city centres and frequently struggling suburbs. That will help to ensure that people across the country have better options to combine different modes of transport by supporting projects that will improve connectivity, reduce congestion and introduce new mobility services and technology.

We have already seen the impact of better integrated transport links for both passengers and the local economy in cities such as Nottingham and Manchester. The new transforming cities fund will enable more English cities to reap those benefits, helping to deliver the opportunities and ambition of the industrial strategy across the country, as well as driving forward the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine. Greater Manchester will receive £243 million from the transforming cities fund. As part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, it will be for the Mayor and the GMCA to decide whether to use this allocation to develop projects to improve connectivity in the Leigh area—I hope that helps to address the earlier question.

The Government have been very clear that we need better travel connections in the north. To address this, we are already spending record amounts on transformational projects, such as HS2 and the Great North Rail project; new trains and extra services, through improved franchises; and £3 billion on roads to make journeys faster and more reliable. Of course, investment in the north is crucial, and we are demonstrating that, but there is also a need for a long-term strategy to drive those investment decisions—a strategy developed by the north for the north. Pioneering legislation to transform Transport for the North into the first ever statutory sub-national transport body, with legal powers and duties, was approved by Parliament this week. Also this week, Transport for the North published its draft strategic transport plan for consultation. As a result of TfN’s new powers, coming into force on 1 April, the Secretary of State will formally consider the north’s strategy when taking national decisions.

I welcome the publication this week of the draft strategic transport plan, which is an important step in the north speaking with one voice to set out its vision for transport in the region over the next 30 years. I encourage Members to respond to TfN’s public consultation. The north’s unprecedented role in national transport planning will ensure that links between transport and economic development are maximised. We see the establishment of TfN as a significant step for the north and the country.

As the Minister says, we have seen the launch of the transport strategy for the north, and we will indeed be responding to it as local Members. May I ask her to ensure that when the decisions are made, we will get our fair share of the funding to turn those plans into reality and really make a difference for our regions?

This is why it is so crucial that as many Members as possible put forward their ideas and make sure we have their input in the plan, because all Members who add in their information will find that all that data will be put together and will have to be taken into account for those decisions to be made. I encourage Members to make a strong case for their regions and constituencies.

The north’s unprecedented role in national transport planning will ensure that links between transport and economic development are maximised. We see the establishment of TfN as a significant step for the north and the country. It will work with the region’s transport authorities and elected Mayors to build a long-term vision for transport across the north of England. As the voice of the north on transport, TfN will also have unprecedented influence over Government funding and decision making. What this Government are clearly demonstrating is that, in setting up TfN and backing the election of metro mayors, we are giving the north greater autonomy and control, and a powerful voice to articulate the case for new transport projects.

I am, of course, aware that Leigh is the largest northern town without a rail station. We recognise that that appears to be an anomaly, especially given the fact that Leigh had a station for more than a century between September 1864 and May 1969. We are also aware that the Leigh area rail study of January 2012, produced by Transport for Greater Manchester and Wigan Council, stated in its recommendations:

“A wider business case, which included regeneration benefits to Leigh, could be explored in the context of supporting potential future funding bids, but the significant gap between costs and projected benefits of the scheme must be recognised.”

Since that report, there has of course been much rail investment in the north, as well as a number of major reports on the future, all with the aim of enhancing the north’s infrastructure and the services it supports. Leigh has seen some positive developments, with the arrival of the £122 million Vantage guided busway, which provides fast and efficient links into Manchester. It is also important to state that the integration of local, pan-northern and national transport networks of all types is a key focus for TfN.

The Government have, through the years, consistently explained to local representatives, including the hon. Member for Leigh, that, as is the case elsewhere in England, it is for local bodies to determine whether opening a rail station is the best way of addressing local and regional economic development needs, and to secure appropriate funding, including from that made available from government for such purposes through growth and devolution deals.

When he was the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) met the hon. Member for Leigh on 29 November 2017 to address her concerns about HS2 and to provide advice on how her proposal could be taken forward. The hon. Lady was given the contact details of officials at Transport for Greater Manchester and encouraged to engage with them so that they might consider whether a new station at Leigh could play a role in their plans. She will be pleased to hear that Transport for Greater Manchester will soon commence a new study to examine all potential stations in Greater Manchester and review the possible benefits of investment. The sites that are deemed to be potentially viable will be subject to a full business case, which could be put forward for funding in due course.

I shall make some progress because the hon. Lady will want some time to respond.

People in Leigh will be able to access HS2 services from multiple locations, including Wigan, Manchester airport and Manchester Piccadilly station, which is readily accessible from Leigh by public transport, including by use of the new busway. HS2 will join the west coast main line at Golborne, south of Wigan, as well as at Crewe. By linking to the west coast main line, HS2 will deliver benefits to areas such as Preston and Lancaster in north-west England, all the way up to Glasgow, Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland. The growth strategies that are developed by local areas will also play an important part in spreading the regeneration benefits of HS2 beyond those places it serves directly.

I hope I have answered the hon. Lady’s questions and addressed her concerns, and that I have assured the House that the best way to drive railway improvements is to support our strategic vision for rail, which includes the north of England having, in Transport for the North, a new and powerful voice to articulate its future transport needs.

I apologise that I had not realised that the hon. Lady cannot respond; I will take an intervention now.

The meeting with Transport for Greater Manchester was really successful, and I welcomed the advice of the previous Minister about meeting Transport for Greater Manchester and Transport for the North. My concern is that the strategic plans and frameworks are for 20, 30 or 40 years’ time, so generations of young people in Leigh will not feel the benefit.

We have discussed a variety of ways that investment is being put into the hon. Lady’s area. The plans are in place now; they are not just for future generations. People say that when they talk about HS2, but there is solid investment in the region and in the hon. Lady’s constituency, be that in busways or the rail network. The investment is in place. The work that followed the meetings with the previous Rail Minister will continue, and I encourage the hon. Lady to speak to the people responsible who have the powers locally and to continue to engage with them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.