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Transport Infrastructure: Redditch

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered transport infrastructure in Redditch.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to raise this issue. As the MP for Redditch, I have one simple aim: to work with my colleagues in local government—in town hall and Worcester city hall—to unlock Redditch. I want to unlock the full potential of our great town. Naturally, that aim is multifaceted. I welcome the recent cut in business rates and investment in housing stock, and I am actively promoting the regeneration of our town centre, but a critical part of our strategy to truly unlock our town is improved transport infrastructure.

These are exciting times for Redditch. Growth is good and the future is bright. Our manufacturing businesses, such as Mettis Aerospace, are second to none, but new commercial enterprises are developing all the time, too. Now is the time to invest in our town’s future, boost productivity, drive prosperity, create new jobs, increase people’s earning power and ensure that our town remains a great place to live, work and raise a family.

With respect to transport, my vision is of a cleaner, greener Redditch with upgraded rail infrastructure, improved bus services and better pedestrian facilities. A considerable amount of work is already taking place, thanks to the local enterprise partnership, Worcestershire County Council and Redditch Borough Council. Due to their hard work and the strategy they have put in place, plans are already under way. The local Conservative council has secured investment for the upgrade of Redditch station, with possible plans including a second platform, additional parking and a better link into the Kingfisher centre. That is a really positive development for our town’s future. Currently, as people arrive at the station, they do not get the optimal impression of the kind of place Redditch aspires to be. We want to make that first impression on people. Momentum must be maintained, and I urge the county council to continue to pursue its strategy apace. I raise that regularly in my meetings with county councillors.

I am pleased that the rail strategy recognises the need for better connections with Birmingham in the longer term. Does the Minister agree that towns such as Redditch rely on regular, fast commuter connections into the city, because many of our residents work in Birmingham or travel there for shopping and leisure, and that we should continue to look at how to provide those connections? Surely, connectivity across all our metropolitan regions is vital to boosting our economic growth. We have already seen investment in HS2, which will provide connectivity between London and Birmingham, but secondary links with urban centres outside the main city centres are vital to jobs and investment too.

Does my hon. Friend agree that bus services are key to a multi-modal approach? At the moment, the attitude of county councils around the country is to try to take away subsidy for bus services, which has left the vulnerable unable to get about. What does she want to do in that respect for Redditch?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that good point. I will come on to bus services, but I certainly agree with him. We all know that local authorities’ budgets are under pressure, which means that they find it difficult to maintain services that are loss-making but are vital to constituents in remote rural areas. That is especially true for elderly and vulnerable people, who rely on those services to take part in day-to-day activities, with all the benefits for an independent life that they bring. I thank him for making that point, and I am glad he agrees with me. I will come on to bus services directly, so his intervention was timely.

I receive a lot of correspondence from constituents about bus services in Redditch. I hold a bus tour to Parliament—to this very room—once a fortnight. A number of constituents come to see me, and we do a question and answer session. We always start with Brexit, but we go straight from that to buses. My constituents are really interested in bus services, and they are desperate for a better service.

The service in Redditch is run by Diamond Bus. I thank it for its constructive approach to criticism—it takes the time to look into the issues we raise—but, as my hon. Friend said, local bus services should be a higher priority for support from central Government. That would enable local authorities to commission improved services, especially in rural areas, that they cannot deliver with the funding that is available at the moment.

I therefore call on the Government to recognise our local authorities’ challenges and support them. Many bus routes do not make a profit, but they are an absolute lifeline. My constituency covers not only the town of Redditch, which is an urban area, but the rural ward of Wychavon. For elderly residents who cannot drive, the lack of bus services hinders their capacity to live an independent life, which is what we all want for our elderly constituents.

In the west midlands generally, the West Midlands Combined Authority has invested more than £100 million in upgrading its bus fleet, which now includes brand-new buses with some of the cleanest engines on the market. Unfortunately, areas such as Redditch do not have the critical mass of such a large transport authority, so we do not benefit from the same level of investment. Andy Street, the West Midlands Combined Authority Mayor, has called for buses across the entire metro area to meet the latest Euro 6 emissions standard. Will the Minister please outline the Department’s thinking on supporting cleaner vehicles for smaller areas such as Redditch?

We are all aware that air quality is a critical issue, and that dangerous small particles emitted by vehicles penetrate deep into people’s lungs and cause harm in the long term. I welcome the Government’s commitment to reducing emissions to net zero, but they should focus too, hand in hand with that, on the quality of the air we breathe. We know that polluted air can cause long-term health conditions, and our citizens—especially our children—should be protected from that. Of course, public transport must play its part in achieving that objective.

As well as addressing issues with public transport and longer commutes, we should focus on improving shorter journeys, so I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s ambition to make cycling and walking the natural choices for shorter journeys by 2040. Of course, a lot of work has to take place to make those realistic options for people. Redditch is perfectly placed to take advantage of that—we have beautiful green spaces around every corner, plus a network of easily accessed routes—but much more can be done to encourage more residents to leave their cars behind and take to two wheels or two legs.

The benefits are immense. We know that investment in walking and cycling can improve people’s access to green space, tackle loneliness and reduce health inequalities. The Government are rightly prioritising cycling and walking, and have allocated £476 million for cycling and walking infrastructure from the local growth fund for local enterprise partnerships. An important component of that is the requirement for local government to invest around 15% of local transport infrastructure funding in cycling and walking infrastructure. That kind of investment can really help to integrate communities, improve people’s access to green space, tackle loneliness, improve social housing and reduce health inequalities.

I pay tribute to the Church Hill Big Local group, which has launched a programme of weekly local walks. People from across the area join the group for a walk around the neighbourhood, often visiting hidden beauty spots, enjoying an hour outside in a green environment and making new friends. It is simple, free and open to all. It is growing in popularity and building a genuine, strong sense of community in the area, which is welcome. We know that if people are not accustomed to taking walks and do not know the area well enough, they may lack the confidence to go out. Going out with a group or with family, turning off the TV and leaving the screens behind—even for only an hour—has huge benefits for mental and physical health, which we all need in our busy lives these days.

There is such an opportunity to join up the initiatives with the new focus on social prescribing by GPs. Simple steps, such as walking and cycling, have a positive impact on mental and physical health. There is an opportunity to harness technology. We can have more apps on phones to direct local residents to their quickest cycling and walking routes. There is an opportunity to work with Ordnance Survey, especially in a new town such as Redditch, where mapping has not always caught up with house building programmes. Technology can play a part in opening up opportunities for local residents who have newly moved to the area to access green space and all the benefits that that brings.

I want to touch on the future of driving. The Government are committed to ending the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, but there is a lot of work to do to ensure that we have the infrastructure and technology to enable people to harness cleaner, greener vehicles that are better for the environment and cheaper. Recently, we have had discussions with the local borough councils about how they will ensure that we have enough charging points for electric vehicles in a town such as Redditch. How do we develop the batteries to ensure that the cars are fit for purpose and can genuinely replace a petrol or diesel car? Colleagues may be interested to know—I learned this just this week on one of my bus tours—that people with pacemakers cannot recharge electric cars. I was not aware of that, and clearly we need to look at that if we want people to use electric cars. Those fitted with a pacemaker cannot approach a charging point, so we need to change something to help people take advantage of the technology. There clearly are enormous opportunities that will bring enormous benefits to my constituency of Redditch and to others up and down the country.

We all need transport to live our daily lives, and at the same time we need to look to the future and make long-term plans. We have the comprehensive spending review coming up. Sometimes transport is seen as a poor relation. Everyone thinks that other priorities such as policing, schools, education and hospitals are top of the list, and I cannot disagree with that, but we need to think about these more mundane—pedestrian, perhaps—projects that are so important day to day and make a real difference to people’s quality of life. I very much thank the Minister for coming to respond to my debate, and I look forward to his remarks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this debate on transport infrastructure in Redditch. She is a doughty campaigner and constituency representative for Redditch, and I commend her work in that regard. She is absolutely right that transport infrastructure is seminal and of considerable importance, not only because it helps people to get from point A to point B, but because it helps our economy and our health and wellbeing, and it helps our entire society to function.

Redditch sits right at the heart of a dynamic region that is key to the UK economy. The midlands is home to more than 10 million people, more than 815,000 businesses, 21 universities and two international airports. Its economy is worth £237 billion to the UK as a whole, and it generates more than 13% of the UK’s gross value added. Her area and region are of extreme importance.

There is a lot going on in the midlands. There are the 2022 Commonwealth games. Coventry is our 2021 city of culture, which I had something to do with as Culture Minister. To capitalise on the region’s strengths, the Government have established the midlands engine partnership, with the goal of creating a midlands engine that powers the UK economy and truly competes on a world stage. We want to make the midlands an even better place to live, work, study and do business, improving opportunities and quality of life for the people of the region.

My hon. Friend’s region sits at the heart of our transport network. Investment is not just critical for regional success, but is key to our national success. That is why, among other things, we are building High Speed 2, which will be the new backbone of the national rail network, improving capacity, connectivity and growth. The midlands will be the first region to benefit from that new railway.

That covers rail, but we are also investing £1.8 billion in the region’s roads, motorways and trunk roads. We are investing £1.7 billion from the local growth fund, which includes investments in transport schemes across the midlands region. Our £1.8 billion investment in strategic roads includes a major investment on the M42, which my hon. Friend knows provides Redditch with vital connectivity to the wider motorway network. That investment will create a smart motorway at the interchange of the M42 and M40, helping to ease congestion and smooth traffic flows. Work is expected to begin on that important scheme as soon as next March.

My hon. Friend will not need me to tell her that local transport and local issues more generally are often at the front of people’s minds. The local highway network is one of the most valuable national assets and an essential component of our economy. To that end, the Government are investing more than £6 billion in local highway authorities outside London between 2015 and 2021. The £6.6 billion of funding includes nearly £300 million for a pothole action fund, which is being allocated to local highway authorities between 2016 and 2021 to help repair potholes or stop them forming in the first place. Funding from the pothole action fund is enough to repair, or stop from forming, more than 5.9 million potholes on average. That funding is not ring-fenced; its use is entirely at the discretion of highway authorities, based on their local needs and priorities. Between 2015-16 and 2019-20, Worcestershire will receive more than £85 million to help maintain its local road network alone. That includes more than £12 million for small-scale transport improvements.

With the creation of the major road network—comprising around 5,000 miles of our most important A roads—the most important local authority roads are now in scope for new funding from the national roads fund for upgrades and improvements. Regional prioritisation of improvements to such roads is the responsibility of some sub-national transport bodies. Roads that serve Redditch—the A448, A441, A435 and A4023—are part of the major road network and could be eligible for that funding. I encourage my hon. Friend and her local authority to look into that, because that funding, subject to regional prioritisation, could apply to those roads.

As my hon. Friend will know, Redditch forms the southern terminus of the cross-city line, which provides a regular train service from Redditch to Birmingham New Street and on to Lichfield Trent Valley. I am sure she has used the service more than once. Local rail users are now benefiting from the £100 million Redditch branch enhancement, which was completed in late 2014. That has allowed for a more frequent train service, rising from two trains each hour to three trains each hour in each direction. Passenger numbers at Redditch have since grown from just below 900,000 in 2014—889,366, to be precise—to nearly a million in 2018.

Rail services to Redditch are now operated by West Midlands Trains, which started running the franchise in December 2017. As part of the franchise agreement, it has committed to deliver £700 million of investment in new and refurbished trains, which matters a great deal to commuters and rail passengers. That includes 400 brand-new carriages, of which 100 will be for the cross-city line, which serves Redditch. Those carriages will offer metro-style services, with increased space to carry more passengers, and wider doors for quicker access.

The existing class 323 trains on the cross-city line are currently undergoing a major overhaul to improve the experience for passengers. Customers will benefit from accessibility improvements, upgraded passenger information screens, new seat covers and a deep clean of the interior. Thanks to Government investment, those improvements will make travelling on routes relevant to my hon. Friend’s constituency more enjoyable and easier for those requiring accessible facilities. The improvements will bring the inside of the units up to modern standards, after 25 years of operating on the route.

As part of its franchise, West Midlands Trains will also invest more than £60 million in station improvements, which will deliver more than 1,000 new car parking spaces and thousands more cycle parking spaces, as I announced in the last couple of days. West Midlands Trains will also deliver more than 800 new digital information screens, provide realtime journey information and free wi-fi, introduce compensation for delays of more than 15 minutes, and invest more than £70 million in new and existing depots to improve train reliability. Redditch will also benefit from earlier and later services to and from Birmingham, as well as more frequent Sunday services from 2021 onwards. The Government are investing in transport infrastructure in the Redditch area and across the country. We see that in both road and rail improvements.

Alongside rail, local bus services remain central to people’s transport choices, accounting for around 59% of all public transport journeys. My hon. Friend asked for acknowledgment that Redditch relies on regular, fast commuter connections. I, of course, acknowledge that. The Government remain committed to improving bus services. Each year, my Department provides a quarter of a billion pounds in direct revenue support for bus services in England via the bus service operators grant scheme. Of that sum, more than £43 million is paid directly to local councils outside London to support buses that would otherwise not be commercially viable, but which local authorities and services consider socially necessary. The rest goes to commercial bus operators. Worcestershire County Council—my hon. Friend’s local county council—receives more than £530,000 in that grant. Without that support, I venture to say that fares would certainly increase and marginal services would disappear.

I thank the Minister for that information. The subsidies that he describes are essential. Are there any incentives or grants in operation to enable bus operators to upgrade their fleets and exchange them for greener and cleaner vehicles?

Government funding supports the approximately £1 billion spent by local authorities on concessionary bus passes every year, and the Government have committed to protecting, at first, the very popular national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to around 10 million people, allowing free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. On the clean environment, the Government want the UK to be the best place in the world to build and own electric vehicles, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and have already supported the installation of more than 100,000 home charge points. So we are investing in all manner of ways to support such things.

The bus concession is something we have been investing in. It provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. Local authorities are best placed to decide how to provide support for bus services, reflecting local needs within available budgets. The deregulated bus market works well across much of the country, although in some areas the deregulated market has not always responded effectively to the changing needs of the population. However, to answer my hon. Friend’s question directly, the Government have spent nearly a quarter of a billion pounds—some £240 million—on greener buses since 2010, when we came into office. That is of course very positive.

I am pleased that Worcestershire County Council plans to launch a public consultation, with a view to developing a new passenger transport strategy that meets the needs of residents in Redditch and the wider region. The Bus Services Act 2017 contains a range of options for local authorities to improve local bus services and drive up passenger numbers. In addition to franchising, there are new and improved options to allow local transport authorities to enter into partnerships with their local bus operators, with a view to improving services for passengers.

Accessible information powers in the 2017 Act will require all operators of local bus services to provide audio and visual route and next stop announcements on board their buses across Great Britain, helping to remove barriers to bus travel, particularly for those with disabilities or accessibility needs. We are also pioneering technology such as our forthcoming bus open data digital service, to overhaul bus services across England and give passengers the information that they need to travel with confidence.

I am pleased that Swift, the west midlands travel smartcard, now has more than 3.5 million users, and has transformed how people use public transport in Redditch and the west midlands. Data from Transport Focus, the independent transport user watchdog, shows that congestion and roadworks are among the top factors that passengers think affect the length of their bus journeys. Together, local authorities and bus companies can identify the congestion hotspots that disrupt bus journeys and, through partnership commitments, do something about them.

I hope that I have assured my hon. Friend of my, and my Department’s, strong commitment to transport in Redditch, Worcestershire, the midlands and this country. I commend her for her work and advocacy on behalf of her constituency.

Question put and agreed to.