Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this Adjournment debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her attendance and I thank my hon. Friend the Minister in the Lords, Baroness Vere, for a helpful and constructive meeting on this subject.
It is essential that we have driving tests in High Wycombe, yet the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency plans to close our local test centre. Wycombe’s driving instructors, of whom there are around 100, have estimated there are thousands of learner drivers in our town, as is reflected in the number of tests taken each year.
In October 2020, local driving instructors, students and parents were informed that the Wellington Road test site will close on 12th March
“given the low demand for driving tests”.
However, I am told by Wycombe’s instructors that our town has been a popular location to conduct driving tests for around 45 years.
DVSA statistics show that the High Wycombe driving test centre has conducted more tests than both Aylesbury and Uxbridge in the past eight out of nine years. In the year 2018-19, there were 5,549 driving tests in High Wycombe, compared with 4,323 in Aylesbury and 4,847 in Uxbridge. High Wycombe’s driving test centre also ranked 136th out of 349 in terms of the number of tests carried out in the country in the same year.
Driving instructors in my constituency tell me that Slough has eight driving test examiners, but High Wycombe has only two. Although our town had five in 2017, over time the number has been decreased. The Office for National Statistics population estimate for mid-2019 shows that Wycombe has a larger population, at 174,268, than Slough, at 149,539. To put it perhaps more simply, Slough has 85% of Wycombe’s population but four times the number of examiners at its driving test centre. That is difficult to reconcile. Our town should have more examiners to carry out driving tests. ONS figures show that between 2011 and 2019, High Wycombe saw a population increase of 0.35% a year. Although the coronavirus restrictions have halted the driving instruction industry of late, we hope soon to see driving lessons resume. If our town’s population continues to grow, demand for tests in Wycombe could soar.
Should Wycombe’s driving test centre close, the DVSA has indicated that driving instructors and students would have to carry out tests at other centres. The sites on offer are at Aylesbury, Uxbridge and Slough, but the journey from High Wycombe to either test centre is just over 30 minutes in good traffic. To be clear, the journey from Wycombe High Street to Aylesbury, according to Google Maps, in typical traffic is about 38 minutes; to Slough, it is 39 minutes; and to Uxbridge, it is 41 minutes. That is only one way, and it is too far.
It is crucial that we continue to have driving tests in High Wycombe by one of three means: first, by extending the Wellington Road lease, which I understand would be expensive; secondly, by finding a new test centre in our town; or thirdly, by moving over to mobile testing. Following a Transport Committee evidence session on 25 November 2020, the DVSA’s chief executive said that a “meet and greet system” is being considered, suggesting that that might become a pattern for the future. If this proposal is taken forward, he suggested that examiners might meet candidates at supermarkets or leisure centres. This solution seems to offer a reduced cost to the DVSA, potentially eliminating the fixed costs of driving test centres, but I think driving instructors in Wycombe would want me to say that we need to make provision for them to wait while tests are conducted.
I appreciate that the DVSA’s concerns about the lease cost of the present test centre at Wellington Road are significant. At £80,000, it is a substantial sum. Moving to a new test site in High Wycombe could be a solution to this predicament that appealed to all parties involved. In October 2020, the DVSA said that it would consider alternative sites to the centre at Wellington Road, setting out a criterion for its requirements.
In common with majority opinion in Wycombe, I believe that the DVSA would like to see driving tests in our town, which is why I am delighted that the hub space at Cressex business park is currently under review. At a reduced fee of a little over £12,000, I am told by driving instructors that the DVSA is planning to apply for planning permission and, though contracts are not finalised, progress looks encouraging. I very much hope that this is the case and that Buckinghamshire Council will look favourably on any application. I would be very grateful if my hon. Friend confirmed that that is a possibility.
There is a demand for driving tests in High Wycombe. That demand is represented in my inbox, so I am reassured that the Minister is working closely with the independent DVSA to make sure that my constituents have access to driving tests in our town. If the DVSA lets the Wellington Road driving test centre expire on 12 March, will the Minister please ensure that there is a seamless transition to either mobile testing or the hub space on 13 March? High Wycombe should not have to go without driving tests, and any transition should be smooth and uninterrupted.
I am grateful to the DVSA for seriously working towards leasing the hub space at Cressex business park, so may I ask what the length of the contract is that the DVSA intends to enter into? As the coronavirus restrictions are eased, instructors and students need clarity to plan where they will teach, where they will learn and where they will take tests.
Finally, will the Minister please seek to recruit more examiners in Wycombe? I support local instructors’ calls for a driving test centre in High Wycombe with at least five examiners. Although this would still be fewer than the eight provided to Slough, Wycombe ought to see a return to the number in 2017, at which point the DVSA can then make a further assessment about whether more are needed.
If we were not to have driving tests in High Wycombe, instructors and learners would be forced to drive to test sites in the surrounding area, with a round-trip distance of over 30 miles. Notwithstanding the environmental impact that this would have on the surrounding areas of outstanding natural beauty, this could also be a serious economic blow for instructors and for many in the town.
Many driving instructors have already seen their income dry up due to the coronavirus restrictions, and many have not qualified for Government support for the self-employed, being over the £50,000 threshold.
If students are forced to take their driving test in other town centres, it is expected that they will want to learn to drive in the area where the test will be held—Aylesbury, Uxbridge or Slough. As a result, students could find that they are hiring driving instructors in those areas, rather than in High Wycombe. Of course, our instructors have years of experience in our town and would want to continue training and testing people there, rather than seeing tests move away to other centres. For that reason, the closure of our test centre could be a serious blow to many, not just a mere inconvenience.
Closure would, of course, have a financial impact on learner drivers from low-income backgrounds. In a written question last month, I asked the Department for Transport what impact assessment DVSA had done to ensure that people living on a low income in Wycombe would not be disadvantaged by having to travel to another test centre. The answer seemed not to indicate that an impact assessment had been carried out.
It is normal for students across the country to practise test routes with their instructor. If learner students from Wycombe were forced to travel to other sites, they would need extended lessons to do so. According to Wycombe’s driving instructors, the fee for an hour’s lesson is about £32. However, we have established that a round trip to Aylesbury, Uxbridge or Slough takes a little over an hour in good traffic. Therefore, students would find themselves paying £64 for a two-hour lesson when one hour would have done in High Wycombe. For many, that could become untenable.
I can accept that it is easy to assume that High Wycombe is part of the economically successful south-east economy, and of course plenty of my constituents are well off, but my constituency has wards that fall within some of the lowest percentiles for deprivation. Levelling up, as I have pointed out to other Ministers, must not just neglect people who are hidden by taking averages across a constituency.
With just over five weeks to go until the test centre’s lease in High Wycombe expires, my constituents urgently need clarity, so I would be very grateful for any that my hon. Friend the Minister can give. I am certain that we need driving tests in our town, whether than means extending the lease at Wellington Road, turning to mobile testing or securing a long-term lease at Cressex business park’s hub space. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the urgent work that she has done on this subject, and indeed to our noble Friend Baroness Vere in the other place. I would be grateful for any reassurance she can provide.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for securing this debate, and also for the incredibly informative way he has laid out the case for the continuation of driving tests in High Wycombe, which has left no Members of the House in any doubt about his passion on the subject—we would expect nothing less from him, of course. I know that he has been engaging closely with the Transport Secretary and with our noble Friend the Minister in the other place on this issue in recent weeks, making the case for the importance of retaining the ability to conduct tests in High Wycombe. I also want to put on the record my thanks to the driving instructors he has been discussing the matter with.
My hon. Friend has made very clear to us the impact on his constituents of having to undertake long journeys to alternative testing sites, were there not to be any testing sites available in High Wycombe. He has mentioned the financial and environmental impacts of people having to take long journeys to access alternative sites. He made a very good point about the importance of not forgetting that levelling up applies to every constituency in the country, not just those we traditionally think it might do.
I am very pleased to conform from the Dispatch Box today that, as a result of my hon. Friend’s efforts, and the hard work and dedication that he has put into the campaign, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is progressing a proposal to maintain driving tests in High Wycombe. The agency is at an advanced stage of discussions with a new landlord. As he has already laid out, the current driving test centre in High Wycombe is a large two-storey industrial estate on the Cressex busines park. The site can accommodate 15-plus driving examiners. However, the demand for tests at High Wycombe from customers means that just two examiners work there permanently. The accommodation is much too large, and it attracts high running costs, as he has acknowledged. It makes little financial sense to the DVSA or its customers to continue operating out of such a site.
The DVSA has a tried and tested procedure for when it needs to vacate a driving test centre. That is why, in September 2020, it began stakeholder engagement with those who could be affected. The pandemic ruled out the possibility of a face-to-face meeting. However, I am pleased to say that the agency was able to hold an online meeting in October 2020 for many of those affected—including, no doubt, many of the driving instructors my hon. Friend has been talking about. The DVSA explained during that meeting why it was necessary to take advantage of the lease break at the Wellington Road site and, while it was confident it could service demand at other nearby driving test centres, the DVSA said it would consider low-cost alternative options to enable it to continue offering a local service in High Wycombe, were any such premises available. The DVSA recognises the concerns of local driving instructors in High Wycombe, and it understands fully their determination to maintain a driving test centre there. It is very grateful to the instructor community for engaging with it to help it look for low-cost alternative premises.
As I mentioned earlier, the DVSA is now progressing with a proposal to maintain driving tests. I am sure my hon. Friend will be further pleased to know that these premises are also located on the Cressex business park, which is the location of the existing driving test centre. That would mean minimal disruption during the transition from the old premises to the proposed new site. The DVSA is keen to keep to a minimum any break in service between the closure of the existing centre and the opening of the new one, but this will be subject to a number of factors, such as planning, over which the DVSA has no control. Naturally, I understand that my hon. Friend would want to know exactly how long that period is going to be; in fact, I think he might be wishing to ask me that question.
I just want to say how absolutely delighted I am that the Minister has confirmed that we will continue to have driving tests. It is fantastic news, and I pay tribute to the driving instructors for the brilliant campaign they have run, all the research they have done, and their engagement with DVSA. I will just put on the record that I very much hope that Buckinghamshire Council will look favourably on this planning application; if they did not, I think local residents would be extremely surprised. I thank the Government very much for what they have done.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks, and associate myself with his comments about Buckinghamshire Council. To be clear, that is a matter for the local planners, not for me, but we will of course work very closely with my hon. Friend on the questions he has raised with me, specifically about the length of the lease. We will also keep him informed about any progress in determining the final securing of these premises for driving tests in High Wycombe.
In closing, I am pleased to again put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend. As a result of the campaign that he and the local community have run, the DVSA is at an advanced stage of discussions with a landlord of premises on the Cressex business park in High Wycombe for a new driving centre there. I thank you very much for the opportunity to discuss this matter in the Chamber this evening, Mr Deputy Speaker.