I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport connectivity in Merseyside.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I warmly thank my hon. Friends for attending a debate that has such enormous implications for our region. I also thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for joining us. I have no doubt that today’s proceedings will benefit immensely from their expertise.
Draughty trains that creep at a snail’s pace towards Warrington and Manchester, private bus operators that leave those communities most in need cut off and isolated because they cannot turn a profit, and fares that rise year on year—that is the bleak reality that confronts the people of Merseyside every single day. More than eight years since George Osborne revealed his vision of a northern powerhouse, little has changed for the people I represent. Indeed, some things are far worse.
Today, it is quicker to get the train from London to Paris than it is to travel half that distance, from Liverpool to Hull. For all the talk of levelling up and building back better, spending per head on transport in London continues to be double what it is in the north, as it has been for 30 long years. Even as the scale of the climate crisis underscores the importance of getting cars off the road, the parlous state of public transport means that it is simply not an option for people who have to get to work on time, or to hospital, when there are no buses to take them there.
That has been the scandalous situation on Merseyside and across the north for so long that some of my constituents could be forgiven for thinking that things were always like this, and improvements are impossible. Others, however, have written to me, asking why a viable bus route from their home has been axed or why trains to their workplace are better suited for cattle than for people.
My hon. Friend is making a really good speech. I am pleased he has raised the issue of buses being axed without notice. I had that issue in my constituency some time ago in relation to buses from Irby, which is essentially a small village. That impacted a huge number of people, particularly elderly people, people with children and people without cars. Does he agree that bus services need to be reliable and people need to know that they are going to be there? There is no point calling it a service when it is an intermittent arrangement that private providers can cut or deliver as they choose, according to the profit motive.
I agree with my hon. Friend and will try to cover that point a bit later in my speech.
I secured the debate today because I believe that our constituents deserve better, and to talk about some of the steps that we should be taking to change transport in Merseyside for the better. From investing in Northern Rail to improving bus services and empowering local leaders to make a real and lasting change, last year’s integrated rail plan provided the Government with a historic opportunity to make good on the promise of a rail revolution in the north of England.
Transport for the North’s recommendation for a new line connecting Liverpool and Manchester had the potential to transform Merseyside. It would have dramatically cut journey times to our largest neighbour, brought 100,000 jobs to urban areas across the north and contributed a gross value added uplift of £3.4 billion by 2040.
It would not just have been the two big cities that reaped the benefits. Research by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has clearly illustrated that towns like Birkenhead stand to make enormous gains from improved connectivity between major urban areas. My constituents would have counted among the nearly 4 million people to be brought within 90 minutes’ reach of at least four major northern cities, opening them up to exciting new possibilities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. In view of what he has just said about the opportunities of the programme proposed by Transport for the North, does he agree that it is deeply disappointing that the actual outcome is a watered-down version of the absolute worst option, which means that the city region itself is going to have to find £1.5 billion to build a new mainline rail hub, which is just not realistic?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I will try to cover that issue a little later on.
That was why local leaders were so emphatic in urging Ministers to commit to the development of a brand new line: it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the Government to show that they were serious about honouring the commitments they made to the electorate in 2019. Those broken pledges have been shunted into the sidings. Instead of pushing ahead with the transformational changes that communities across Merseyside and the north urgently need and deserve, the Department for Transport has pushed ahead with an option that has rightly been rubbished by the metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech thus far. Does he agree that after 11 years in government, this plan demonstrates the hollowness of the Government’s so-called levelling-up agenda? In the words of the metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram, this is a “cheap and nasty solution”. It is no solution at all.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend: my next sentence was going to include the words “cheap and nasty”. This is levelling down, rather than levelling up.
The electrification of the Fiddlers Ferry route and its incorporation into the national rail network was included in the plan. That option on its own will do nothing at all to improve journey times. Instead of improving economic connectivity, this development threatens to cost our city region an estimated £280 million in disruption over the course of six years. At a time when we badly need to cut emissions and take action on air pollution, it will force an additional half a million cars on to the roads each year and critically undermine freight capacity.
We have been told that the costs of any new station in Liverpool will have to be met locally. A new station would serve as an essential cornerstone of any further expansion of the rail network, and would be indispensable in improving travel times on the upgraded line. However, with an estimated cost of £1.5 billion, it is an expense that our region—one of the most deprived in the country—can ill afford.
The Government’s inability to live up to their lofty rhetoric and deliver the rail revolution that the north was promised exposes monumental failings at the heart of their levelling-up strategy. Whether on transport, education or energy, the Government are simply not willing to put their money where their mouth is. The task before us is enormous: we are attempting to address decades of under-investment, managed decline, and neglect of our transport network.
I eagerly anticipate the Minister’s contribution today, and while I have no intention of prejudging his remarks, I am sure that he will point to recent spending announcements from which our city region has benefited. Of course I welcome that additional funding, but the Government still do not seem to grasp the scale of the challenge ahead, as the scrapping of the Liverpool to Manchester line clearly demonstrates. Individual spending announcements and piecemeal policies are not enough; there needs to be a transformational, long-term project with real buy-in from Westminster.
That is all the more important given the devastating impact that local government funding cuts have had on local transport networks. Wirral Council alone has seen its central Government grant fall from £260 million in 2010 to a measly £37 million this financial year, and now—like many local authorities on Merseyside—it finds itself in the midst of a deepening financial crisis. When we look to the future of transport, we must never forget the 10 years lost to Conservative austerity. For transport, as for so many services, this was a decade of destruction that will take a lot more than piecemeal handouts to rebuild.
Moreover, the levelling-up agenda has no chance of success if local voices remain stifled and local leaders remain powerless to take a lead in effecting change. Mayor Rotheram, the combined authority’s transport lead, and the leaders of Warrington Borough Council and Cheshire West and Chester Councils were unequivocal in their repeated warnings that option 5.1 was not right for our region. We must ask why they were not listened to, and why it is that policy makers in Whitehall continue to ride roughshod over local leaders who know the needs of their communities best.
In Merseyside, ambitious plans for a London-style transport network hint at what is possible when local leaders get the financial support and political freedom they need. As Mayor Rotheram has said, we cannot wait for national Government to act, because it will never happen. Instead, the Liverpool city region is forging ahead with plans to fundamentally reform our region’s transport network so that everyone on Merseyside has access to the affordable, accessible and green transport they deserve. The city region has already invested over half a billion pounds in a new fleet of state-of-the-art trains that will begin service later this year. Ambitious plans are also under way for the development of new stations and improvements across the region that will radically expand access to the network. The steps being taken to improve accessibility across the network will be particularly welcomed by my constituents in Rock Ferry, whose local station has for too long been inaccessible to wheelchair users and people with limited mobility.
However, rail is not the only sector in dire need of reform. Trains may connect our towns and cities, but buses bring communities together. Bus services are a vital lifeline for millions of people across the north, especially in areas like Merseyside that have such high levels of deprivation and low rates of car ownership. In the city region, 80% of all journeys taken on public transport are by bus, but since the deregulation of bus services in the 1980s, my constituents have been dependent on a fragmented and privatised system in which bus operators compete against each other while ignoring the needs of the local community.
A recent investigation into the provision of bus services on the Wirral exposed the scale of the problem that my constituents face. Residents reported having to catch two or three buses to travel even relatively short distances, and many expressed frustration at the difficulties they encounter in trying to reach Arrowe Park Hospital, which serves the entirety of our peninsula. Some of the most impoverished communities in my constituency, such as the Noctorum estate, feel all but cut off from the rest of Wirral, while other areas have no bus services at all, as operators deem those routes to be unprofitable.
Covid continues to have a negative effect on provision, with some services having not resumed since the darkest days of the pandemic. Here, again, the combined authority is taking decisive action. Using powers afforded to him by the Bus Services Act 2017, Mayor Rotheram is working to re-regulate the bus network across the city region to guarantee that commuters get the quality of service they deserve. The metro Mayor has also submitted a £667-million bid to central Government to increase services across the network, begin the roll-out of new zero-emission hydrogen vehicles and slash fares.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In my own constituency of Stockport and across Greater Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham has pioneered the bus franchising model, which will deliver lower fares and improved connectivity, and prioritise passengers over private profit. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Mayor Burnham and encourage people to use this model across the nation?
I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing the debate but on the excellent way that he is presenting our case. Would he acknowledge that city region Mayor Steve Rotheram, to whom he has referred a few times, has made it clear that he would be willing, along with Andy Burnham and other local government leaders, to sit down with the Government and try to work out a compromise deal that would be better than what is on offer at the moment? Does he agree that the Minister should be encouraged to take up that offer? The future of our city region hinges on it, in the way that he has described.
I totally agree with my right hon. Friend, and I obviously hope that the Minister takes cognisance of the points he made.
Whether in Greater Manchester or Merseyside, local leaders should be commended for working hard to turn the tide and undo the ruinous legacy of 40 years of privatisation. However, I am very concerned that the Government have tied the hands of local government and are still preventing it from taking the bold and decisive action that is needed. In Merseyside and across the north, there is widespread recognition that our transport network should serve public need, not private greed.
However, in England, the Railways Act 1993 continues to prohibit the public operation of train services. With the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland working to bring rail back into public ownership, surely it is time for combined authorities in England to be given equivalent powers, so that essential services such as Merseyrail can be brought into public hands and run on a not-for-dividend basis.
Given the widespread issues with bus services in Merseyside that I have mentioned, I would welcome an update from the Minister on any steps the Government might be taking to review the Bus Services Act 2017 to allow for the establishment of municipal bus companies. I am conscious that we are pressed for time, and I am looking forward to hearing the contributions of other hon. Members, so I will conclude my remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I know that you are a frequent visitor to the city region, and I was delighted that you were in my constituency at Haydock Park just before Christmas. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), who secured this debate, and to be part of this formidable red wall from Merseyside, with even a usurper from across the DMZ in Greater Manchester.
St Helens is often seen as being on the periphery of one city region, but we see ourselves as sitting at the heart of two—Liverpool city region and Greater Manchester—and acting as a key bridge between them. Therefore, harnessing every chance for growth and for local opportunities obviously requires transport connectivity.
We have already made important improvements to our road infrastructure along the A580, known locally as the East Lancs road, at Windle Island and Haydock. Newton-le-Willows station is now the second busiest on the Manchester-to-Liverpool line. It is being transformed into a leading regional transport hub. Six hundred kilometres of new cycling and walking networks are planned for the next decade, with a new 7 km route linking St Helens to Burtonwood and additional capacity on the Sankey Valley cycle route, which I and my family use on an almost weekly basis.
Cross-boundary bus services and links to Liverpool, Manchester, Warrington, Wigan and beyond are a particular issue for us. These are all progressing. We want our services to be enhanced and to see an end to the extortionate prices that are driven by profits for private companies. Wider innovations, particularly in green transport, are helping in our fight against climate change. Having Liverpool city region’s publicly owned hydrogen buses on the route between the city and St Helens will mean the first green bus route in our region.
It is important to say that all this is being done by Labour councils, supported by Labour MPs, and the Liverpool city region Labour Mayor, Steve Rotheram, because we are ambitious for our city region and for our constituents. That stands in stark contrast to the Government. The integrated rail plan published in November was, we were told, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to push this agenda forward and transform transport for us in the north. But what did we get? We got a plan that is not even fit for the present, never mind the future.
The plan betrayed us and our communities again. It will sacrifice direct connections from Newton-le-Willows station in my constituency for the sake of a two-minute improvement on journeys from Manchester to Liverpool. There are no plans to improve local services from Garswood, for example by improving disabled access, or Rainford, and there is nothing about the future of the proposed new station at Carr Mill. The plan says nothing about developing the link between St Helens junction and central stations, which would open whole new possibilities for the town and our whole borough. This all comes as revised rail timetables for December 2022 propose reduced services from all those stations, meaning that we will have more overcrowding and constraints on passenger numbers.
In recent months, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Mayor of the Liverpool city region, Steve Rotheram, came to St Helens for a transport seminar with our local council and colleagues from Wigan and Warrington. We will continue to press for a better deal—the best deal for our region and constituents—because I and my colleagues are focused on transforming transport for our people. We know that that is critical for our economy and our climate, but also for our connections to each other and our places. I urge the Government to catch up and support us in the work we are doing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) on securing this hugely important and topical debate.
I will avoid wasting any time mincing my words and get straight to the point: the Minister’s Department, the Secretary of State and the Government are badly letting down the people of Liverpool city region. For all the talk of levelling up, excluding our city region from the Northern Powerhouse Rail network and introducing the integrated rail plan is an abject failure to support economic growth in one of the great cities of the north. Our metro Mayor Steve Rotheram called the new plan “cheap and nasty”, and those are words I echo without equivocation.
Alongside Members from the city region, the metro Mayor and the portfolio holder on the combined authority, I wrote to the Secretary of State in December to make our position clear. For the purpose of today’s debate, I will reiterate that the IRP will be remembered for what it does not deliver for Merseyside.
There will be no new line connection to Liverpool. That fails to integrate us into the High Speed 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail networks. Upgrades to existing lines in and out of Liverpool will cause up to six years of disruption, which will be significant for the Liverpool city region, causing an economic hit of at least £280 million each year. The plan will fail to deliver transformational extra capacity, as it includes using the already congested west coast mainline into Liverpool. That means little ability to grow local services. In fact, some services will be lost.
There will be a detrimental impact to freight, as 88 freight trains will be unable to operate each week during the upgrade phase. That freight traffic may never return to Liverpool. The plan will constrain the port of Liverpool’s growth as the main deep-water port on the west of the British mainland. There will be no new station for Liverpool, which is vital to ensure the capacity for more long distance and local services. As the plan does not intend to commence work until the 2040s, there will be a slower delivery time. There are multiple caveats regarding the approvals and further progress. Do the Government have any intention of delivering anything beyond phase 2b to the west, and the west to east midlands link? Everything I just mentioned will prohibit the city region’s ability to achieve net-zero emissions.
The original Transport for the North NPR plans proposed a real levelling up of the north of England, meaning that people in Liverpool city region and Merseyside could have economic opportunities in Manchester, Leeds and Bradford. It would have taken millions of cars off the M62, but these new plans bring us right back. The whole of the north will suffer, as will the whole of our economy, once again at the expense of London and the capital. Does my hon. Friend agree that these plans are letting down the whole of the north?
My hon. Friend makes incredibly salient points, all of which I agree with. It is the whole of the north that will suffer under these detrimental plans.
As I was saying, support for HS2 in the north is largely predicated on delivering NPR in full, as promised, so that LCR and our regions can realise its full benefits. It is clear from the reply I received from the Department that cost is the driving factor in this deal, not the transformational change that Northern Powerhouse Rail would have brought. The IRP represents another broken promise from a Government who are intent on talking the good game of levelling up while delivering nothing of the sort. The consequences for the Liverpool city region and beyond in the north will be grave.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) for securing this important debate. Although my constituency is in Cheshire, we are very much in the hinterland of Merseyside. We are less than 10 miles away from Liverpool city centre, and our economic, educational, cultural and family connections mean that there are many people travelling across Merseyside on a daily basis. Sadly, it seems that we are an afterthought, suffering poorer services and higher costs.
I will not repeat the legitimate arguments made by my constituents about the two-tier charging system they face when they cross the River Mersey in their car through the tunnel or the over the bridge. What I will say is that we are now coming up to seven years since the then Chancellor George Osborne promised my constituents that they would not have to pay a fee to cross the bridge at Runcorn. Will the Minister tell us when that promise will be kept?
Constituents of mine travelling by train have a similar experience at the moment, as the Wrexham to Bidston line is operating a reduced service due to short staffing, which is understandable. For my constituents in Neston, that is the only route by public transport into Liverpool. We were expecting a half-hourly service by now, but the pandemic seems to have delayed that. The current service runs once every two hours, which hopefully will be put right shortly, but it seems extraordinary to me that the 7.10 am and the 9.10 am train have survived, but the 8.10 am train has been cancelled. Surely, as the peak morning service, this is the last journey that should be cut.
We are waiting for answers about this from the current operator, but when the Minister responds I hope he can say when we can get the half-hourly service that was specifically promised in the franchise agreement. Ultimately, passengers on this line need an end to the need to change at Bidston, and to get the direct line to Liverpool installed. That would deliver the true connectivity that we need in Neston.
My constituents in Ellesmere Port, on the other side of the constituency, already have a half-hourly service to Liverpool, although the price of tickets is an issue. We all know the cost of rail travel is going up, and indeed the cost of everything else is going up, but we seem to be paying more than others.
The cost of a ticket into Liverpool from Little Sutton is 30% more expensive than from a station just two stops further down the line, and three times as much as it would cost for a similar journey in London. I do not understand why those price differentials exist, and I would be grateful if the Minister could provide an answer as to why prices are so much more expensive for my constituents, or at least commit to looking into that.
There has been a 20-year campaign for a station at Ledsham, in Little Sutton, which was submitted to the railway renewal fund, but sadly rejected. The overall comment that the Department made was that it was
“a strong proposal with a well-articulated narrative on how the project could unlock growth opportunities in the area.”
It puzzles me somewhat that the application was rejected. Can the Minister enlighten me as to the reasons why it was turned down? The suspicion that we have seen in other areas is that decisions are being made on a party political basis, and not on the merits of the application. Will the Minister advise when there will be an opportunity to submit a further application? The problems that that station would solve are only going to increase.
Finally, I want to mention the crisis in school transport, which particularly affects my constituents travelling to schools on the Wirral. Driver shortages and increased fuel costs mean that some services are being pulled all together, or only offered on a termly basis, at a price that few can afford. As the schools are outside the catchment area, there is no financial support available.
I acknowledge that this will not be a priority for local authorities, with their stretched funds, but I know that this is not an isolated example and the pattern is being repeated across the country. Pupils have had enough disruption to their education during the last couple of years, so I would not want them to have to change schools because travel to the school of their choice has become unaffordable. Can the Minister comment on any assessment he has made on the cost and availability of home-to-school transport? That chimes with what my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said earlier about the paucity of bus services in the area, and the need for places like Merseyside and Cheshire to be given the powers, rules and resources to take back control of their bus networks. That is something I think we would all want to see.
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) for securing this important debate.
For too long, the Government have been looking for transport companies to turn profit. The main purpose of transport is to get people around more easily. The knock-on effect of this is a boost to the local economy. That is how transport should be looked at and judged.
I will start by talking about buses. Buses provide over 80% of public transport journeys across the Liverpool city region. Across the region, a third of residents do not have access to a car. For many, a bus route is a lifeline to work, for food shopping, to see friends and family, and to the night-time economy.
Liverpool city region Mayor, Steve Rotheram, has submitted ambitious plans to the Government to improve our bus services, which are desperately needed. The plans would create a cheaper, more frequent and overall better bus service. The plans even look to introduce hydrogen buses, which aligns with the Government’s own promises to reduce emissions following COP26.
A reasonably-priced, reliable bus service across the Liverpool city region would make access to jobs and opportunities so much easier for many local residents. For too long, poor transport links have held people back from employment, social activities and culture. In St Helens, there are so many apprenticeship opportunities for young people. Often, the biggest difficulty is getting to them. This bus plan would improve the way that young people and people of all ages go about their lives. That is what a good transport network is all about.
I hope that my Merseyside colleagues will forgive me for using the other M-word—Manchester. St Helens is located between two great cities: Liverpool and Manchester. As many colleagues know, I am a rugby league fan, so I am not involved in any football arguments and drama. For St Helens, connections to both cities are crucial to us—for jobs, socialising, education, shopping and culture. For example, the Christmas markets have recently been enjoyed by so many of my constituencies, but the irregularity of off-peak trains is an issue. Lea Green station has a big free car park, which makes it very popular with my constituents. The trains to Manchester come at nine minutes to and six minutes past the hour. That is two trains within 15 minutes of each other, and nothing for the rest of the hour. They also arrive within three minutes of each other in Manchester. It makes many local residents think, “What is the point?”. Surely there is a better way to spread out the service, especially when there are only two trains an hour.
In Liverpool, the story is the same for trains. From Lea Green and St Helens Central to Liverpool Lime Street, there are two trains an hour within 15 minutes of each other. In fact, sometimes at St Helens Central, the two trains an hour are as close as eight minutes apart and nothing for the rest of the hour. Again, if this service is limited to a certain number of trains per hour, it is important that they are spread out as much as possible.
Public transport should not be about whether transport companies are making big profits for their shareholders. It should be about people getting around more easily and more cheaply to give a boost to local businesses, local high streets and local attractions.
The Government need to stop seeing transport in isolation, and see it as a way to support local economies and communities. We have all seen the impact that Transport for London has had on making London the economic hub that it has become. For decades, millions of pounds of Government support have helped London to become the powerhouse that it is, but here, unless people are in the golden triangle, there seems to be nothing going for them. Each announcement seems to give us a kick rather than a lift. To help other cities across the country, the Government need to start funding us in the way that they have funded the golden triangle.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I join my comrades in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) for securing today’s important debate.
This Government have attempted to make levelling up their watchword of the day, but instead of tackling regional inequalities, they are rolling back on their promises, abandoning northern towns and cities to cope with failing transport infrastructure.
The integrated rail plan was seen as a once- in-a-generation opportunity to tackle fragmentation, deregulation and underfunding in our railways. It recommended a new line between Liverpool and Manchester, which would have transformed Merseyside, promising to bring 100,000 jobs to urban areas across the north and contributing £3.4 billion to the economy by 2040. Instead, the north has once again been failed, with no significant improvements to journey times, compromised capacity for local and freight services, and the promise of severe disruption and delays.
The bleak reality is that, with spending per head in the north half of that spent in London, transport across Merseyside and in the broader region is woefully lacking. People needing to get to work on time or get to hospital appointments are left wanting, forced to travel for hours. In failing to integrate Liverpool into High Speed 2 and the Northern Powerhouse Rail network, this Government have undermined economic growth in the city region. It has condemned us to up to six years of disruption to existing lines coming in and out of Liverpool, costing at least £280 million in every year of that disruption. If this Government are truly serious about levelling up for so-called left behind areas such as my own city of Liverpool, they need to put their money where their mouth is. Instead, they have shown once again that their promises ring hollow.
Labour leaders in the north-west and elsewhere are leading the way in investing in integrated sustainable transport systems. Liverpool’s metro Mayor Steve Rotheram has done some incredible work to roll out state-of-the-art, fully accessible and publicly-owned trains for the Merseyrail network later this year. He has already begun to deliver on a 600 km network of cycling and walking routes for the city region. He has secured £710 million to invest in further infrastructure improvement, including new green bus routes, and he submitted a welcome bid of £667 million to re-regulate and increase bus services across the network, to begin the roll-out of zero-emission hydrogen vehicles and to slash bus fares.
The task before us is enormous. We need radical change to undo the decades of decline of our transport network. The piecemeal policies and additional funding allocated so far do not face up to the scale of the challenge ahead. Instead, we need additional powers for combined authorities to bring services such as Merseyrail into public hands. We need the Government to engage with, support and finance the radical and ambitious transport plans that the metro Mayor is implementing.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship again today, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) for securing this important debate and for all the campaigning he has done on the issue. I also thank all the other MPs from Merseyside and beyond for their powerful contributions.
My hon. Friend outlined in detail the connectivity issues that we face across our transport networks in Merseyside. The environmental impact that this is having cannot be understated. The issues are intertwined. We need a change to the infrastructure if we are looking to reduce emissions, and have an impact on people’s health and wellbeing as well as to their ability to access work and services, and if we are looking to improve the digital economy experience that is vital in Liverpool.
We need long-term solutions—not pop-up cycle lanes or short-term schemes, but thought-out long-term investment infrastructure. We need real action, not soundbites about levelling up from the Government. If they are serious about the levelling-up agenda, the Government must listen, be led by what Merseyside Members, local leaders and our constituents are saying, and provide the resources and policy for the vital transport connectivity needed across our city region.
The integrated rail plan was a wonderful opportunity to revolutionise our country’s rail network, but the north has been offered a “cheap and nasty” deal, as has been much quoted today. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) made our collective thoughts clear in a letter to the Secretary of State, and there have been the comments made by Members today.
Since the reforms of the 1980s, areas such as Merseyside have been forced to contend with fragmentation, deregulation and underfunding. I thank metro Mayor Steve Rotheram and Liam Robinson for their work to reverse that awful legacy. I look forward to working with them to reintroduce the Bootle branch line. If the Bootle branch line—officially titled the Canada Dock branch—could be opened as a passenger route, it could save a host of Liverpool communities.
That line could run from Lime Street to Edge Lane, Prescot Road, West Derby Road, Townsend Lane, Walton Lane and County Road before going to Bootle. It would be a game changer for connectivity in West Derby and in the north of the city, and it is one that I know my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) wholeheartedly supports.
In my constituency, the transport connectivity was arguably better a century ago than it is now. The former station buildings remind us of the Cheshire lines that served our community from 1884 to 1960, when passenger services ceased. My constituent Stephen Guy recalled:
“I was 12 when the passenger trains stopped and I recall the ticket office with its little window to pay fares. It was a picturesque line along the West Derby section and many people were saddened by the closure. People filmed and photographed the last trains. West Derby Station was the finest on the line. The station had popular staff who tended beautiful flower beds and hanging baskets—they won awards.”
That is a wonderful memory of civic pride in a publicly-owned railway network. I ask the Minister to look at what we had in the past and to see what can be reinstated; we could connect our city using existing train lines, by bringing stations back into public use and linking them to bus routes. That would offer real solutions, and result in cleaner air and better connectivity.
I am proud to have stood in 2019 on a manifesto that would have ensured that councils could improve bus services by regulating bus networks and taking them into public ownership and have given them the resources and full legal powers to achieve that cost-effectively, thereby ending the race to the bottom in working conditions for bus workers. It would also have delivered improvements for rail passengers by bringing our railways back into public ownership, allowing us to make fares simpler and more affordable and rebuild the fragmented railways as a nationally integrated public service, cut the wastage of private profit and improve accessibility for disabled people.
It is a false economy to waste funds, time and resources on quick wins that do not last. Will the Minister commit to investing in our infrastructure and look at long-term solutions?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) on securing this debate, which is much needed and very timely, as the number of speakers shows.
I agree with all that has been said about the IRP and the comments of Mayor Steve Rotheram. This issue gets to the heart of the problem with the Government’s transport policy, because we have been promised for more than a decade that the transport issues in the north will be dealt with. I am old enough to remember when the northern powerhouse was championed by the Conservative party; not any more, it seems. We were promised even by the current resident of No. 10 that we would see levelling up, but those promises ring absolutely hollow every time a constituent of mine tries to get a bus.
I will make just a few brief points. In Merseyside and right across the north of England, public transport is straightforwardly an equality issue, because it is people without cars, parents and older people who really struggle. If we are to improve productivity in this country and see a growing economy, dealing with the challenges of our public transport will be at the heart of the solution.
First, buses are massively important. We talk a lot about trains in this country, but the vast majority of people who are at the bottom end of things when it comes to wages get on buses; they have less access to cars, and in Merseyside they live further from train stations. I sound like an old woman today, but I remember when this Tory Government took away the bus support grant; it had a massive impact on the availability of buses in Merseyside and we are still feeling it today. Other hon. Members have talked about what a big deal it is when a bus gets taken away from a community. We have the possibility of some reform now in Merseyside, but what conversations has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Department for Work and Pensions and other Departments about the impact of poor bus services on the employment prospects for people in Merseyside and other parts of the north?
Secondly, our social housing areas in Merseyside are often very poorly served by public transport because of how the rail network was historically built to support a growing economy during the Victorian era. That means that, as many hon. Members have said, we need to go much further to address the imbalance. We need to look at the interconnections between areas of housing that need to grow, particularly for people who are struggling, and put the transport links in. My neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned the Wrexham-Bidston line; I feel like when the world ends I will still be saying we need better services on the Wrexham-Bidston line, so I implore the Minister to look at it.
Thirdly, people without cars need better transport because they need to be able to get to work and have better chances. We all need people to get out of their cars, because we all need to do something about climate change and we know that it will most affect those who have least. It is a matter of our environmental future and a matter of equality. I ask the Minister what conversations he has had with the Liverpool city region about its plans, because we need to supercharge them.
Finally, when devolution came about for Merseyside, we wanted it because we wanted to demonstrate that we could run ourselves—that we could improve life prospects for people in Merseyside right where we are, instead of having to come begging all the time to people in Whitehall, asking them to help us. So far, it is working. I simply ask the Minister to get behind us and let us show what we can do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. My congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) on securing this important debate on transport connectivity in Merseyside. I express my gratitude, too, to my hon. Friends from Merseyside and nearby for the eloquence of their speeches, which amply illustrated their passion for their region. My Slough constituency is a long way from Merseyside—while they have the River Mersey, we have the Jubilee line, and while they have “Brookside”, we have “The Office”—but what I do share with the good people of Merseyside is their desire for better transport, and equality when it comes to transport funding.
For far too long the region has suffered, despite excellent local leaders pushing for better. Merseyside faces unique issues when it comes to transport connectivity. The majority of short trips—under 5 km—are made by car, and as a result the region has a significant air pollution issue. In the Liverpool city region alone, over 1,000 deaths a year are linked to this silent killer. On public transport, 80% of journeys are taken by bus, yet bus fares have risen by 40% and routes have been mercilessly cut nationally. Rates of active travel, such as walking and cycling, are relatively low, making up just 4.5% and 1% of journeys respectively. Given the population and the scale of the region, rail connectivity across the region and further afield is poor.
However, while the landscape of transport might be varied, the solution is simple: providing genuinely affordable, convenient, accessible and good-quality public transport. Indeed, despite this difficult landscape and northern funding facing a shortfall of £86 billion in comparison with London, it is a Labour-led locality that has driven through successes for the region, proving that when we listen to local people and commit to devolution, transport can be transformative.
Serving 1.6 million people, Mayor Steve Rotheram, with whom I had a good chat this week, has been fighting hard to bring about serious transformation of the Liverpool city region’s transport system. Under his leadership, Merseyside’s record on improving transport has been impressive. There is the roll-out of publicly owned trains for the Merseyrail network, and investment in new rolling stock, designed with local passengers’ needs in mind. That has used a direct public ownership and procurement model, which reduces costs and pioneers a new approach. There are the plans to completely overhaul and re-regulate the bus network as part of the bus service improvement plan. There is improved accessibility across the network, including level access from train to platform. Work is beginning on the first phase of a 600 km network of cycling and walking routes for the city region, and in the city region sustainable transport settlement, funding has been secured for new green bus routes and enhanced walking and cycling infrastructure.
Mayor Rotheram and hon. Members here are passionate about their region. A London-style integrated transport system is what they want. True devolution is required from Government, not mere soundbites. Significant funding is needed to meet the challenge ahead. How have Merseyside’s ambitions for transformational change been supported? I am afraid that it is the same old story from this Tory Government. Rather than levelling up, they neglect, betray and short-change the north from their Westminster bubble, ignoring local voices. and marginalising their well-informed views when it comes to decision making.
Nothing epitomises this more than the disintegrated rail plan; “cheap and nasty” is how Mayor Rotheram described the IRP’s weak offering for Liverpool, which will have all the disruption and none of the benefits. Instead of the full Northern Powerhouse Rail plans, as agreed by the cross-party, respected Transport for the North, Merseyside was offered a deal that provides no real or effective improvement to journey times, capacity or connectivity. Despite Liverpool Central station being declared at capacity by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, there are no plans for a new station for Liverpool unless it is locally funded.
The port of Liverpool is one of the busiest; it transported 31 million metric tonnes of freight in 2020 alone. Anyone would think that the Government would want to ensure that the port was served properly by the IRP, so that we could move more freight off our roads and on to rail, and reduce inner-city traffic and emissions. I welcome the recent upgrades to the Bootle branch line, but concerns about the disruption that will be caused by up to 88 freight trains a week during construction relating to the IRP have yet to be addressed. I therefore ask the Minister, quite simply: why is Merseyside being short-changed once again as a result of the Government’s rail plan for the north? This matters because the potential of our northern regions is being wasted. I appreciate, acknowledge and understand the huge potential of Merseyside, and it is disappointing that the Government clearly do not feel the same. I urge the Minister to engage with local leaders, hon. Members and the people of Merseyside to ensure that the plans deliver for them, because they will have direct consequences for millions of people for decades to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to respond to the numerous speeches made by right hon. and hon. Members.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) on securing the debate on this incredibly important topic. Transport connectivity in Merseyside is important for not just the city region, but the north of England and the whole United Kingdom. Responsibility for much of transport connectivity in Merseyside rests with the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and the city region’s metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram, who has been referred to by many speakers, and whom I meet regularly, given that my portfolio includes high-speed rail and Northern Powerhouse Rail, as well as the trans-Pennine route upgrade.
Mayoral combined authorities—Liverpool city region was at the forefront of the drive to create metro Mayors—were created in recognition of the strategic importance of joining transport connectivity with activity on economic development, housing and planning, so that we can ensure sustainable economic growth in our great cities and opportunities for the communities in them. Through a series of devolution deals, we have provided mayoral combined authorities with more transport powers and more funding. I assure all Members who have spoken that the Department for Transport and its Ministers, including me, work constructively with the Mayor and all our partners in the Liverpool city region to ensure that its transport connectivity maximises economic growth and supports thriving communities.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. What does he think about Steve Rotheram’s suggestion, which I repeated today, that the Minister sits down with local government leaders to see if a compromise can be reached that does not have all the downsides we know about, and that would improve the service in the way that many of us would like?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point. I have spoken to Steve Rotheram since the integrated rail plan was published and I am aware of the call from northern leaders for more discussions. I am happy to have those discussions, both with the Mayor and with other northern leaders, to see how we can progress a variety of schemes. It is fair to say that I spoke to all the northern leaders regularly when considering the integrated rail plan and drawing it up. The Secretary of State met northern leaders through the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, which he founded. He also worked with Transport for the North to bring together a wealth of evidence and come up with the plan, but I am more than happy to continue to speak to the Mayor and others to ensure that we take local communities with us as we progress the plans. As we said in the plan, we take an adaptive approach towards investment. We are keen to continue to work with the Liverpool city region and others on delivery of the plans.
Improved transport connectivity within and between our great cities is fundamental to our levelling-up vision, in which we unlock the economic potential of the northern powerhouse, build back better from this awful pandemic, and ensure that the Liverpool city region and the north of England play a key role in a resurgent UK economy. That is why my Department, led by the Secretary of State for Transport, who is also the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse, is at the forefront of making that vision a reality.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) on securing this important debate. For many, Liverpool is the capital of north Wales, yet direct rail services from the north Wales coast ceased in the 1970s. Thanks to the reopening of the Halton curve, hourly services are promised from Llandudno to Liverpool, although not, I think, until December 2023. Will the Minister join me in calling on Transport for Wales to bring that forward if it can?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which I will relay to the Minister with responsibility for rail, who I know speaks regularly to colleagues in Transport for Wales. He makes a very powerful point on behalf of his constituents.
Since 2010, over £29 billion has been invested in transport infrastructure in the north, but the Government want to go further, faster. Levelling up all parts of the UK is at the centre of the Government’s agenda as we build back better from the pandemic, and we will shortly publish a levelling-up White Paper that sets out bold new policy interventions giving local control to drive economic recovery. Transport connectivity is fundamental to that.
The Minister has said that he recognises the importance of transport connectivity and improving the economy of the Liverpool city region. Then why have his Government decided to deliver the worst option—a watered-down version of it described as “cheap and nasty” by the Mayor of the region? It is just not good enough.
It was described by Mayor Rotheram in those terms. However, our analysis has shown that the proposals from Transport for the North and others for brand new lines would have very significant additional costs and environmental impacts, and would deliver minimal additional benefits to passengers. They would also take longer to deliver than upgrades to existing lines.
Many right hon. and hon. Members referred to climate change. I speak as the Minister responsible for high-speed rail, and having spent a lot of time mitigating some of the environmental impacts of the construction of HS2. The embedded carbon in steel and concrete, and building brand new infrastructure through pristine countryside, has a huge environmental impact both on biodiversity and carbon emissions. We have to get the balance right. If in parts of the north of England we can deliver similar passenger benefits with less environmental impact, we have to consider those options realistically. These were the kind of issues we had to balance when we were drawing together the integrated rail plan.
The levelling-up White Paper is being finalised, but we are already making great strides towards strengthening the voice of the north. Mayor Rotheram represents a region that is part of the 60% of the north that is now covered by metro Mayors. We have announced the first allocations from the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, which will regenerate towns and high streets and allow investment in the infrastructure that people need. This includes £37.5 million for Liverpool city region’s “levelling-up for recovery” proposals, which will deliver a range of transport interventions to support connectivity and economic growth in Liverpool city centre, the Maritime Gateway in Sefton and Birkenhead. Those include the transformation of Argyle Street with a new active travel corridor that will link regeneration at Woodside with a new Dock Branch Park and the enterprise zone at Wirral Waters; and reconfiguring the Kingsway tunnel toll plaza to address congestion and delay on the strategic bus and car route into Liverpool. In addition to this, we have committed £2.35 billion to 101 towns deals, which will invest in local economies; that will affect the constituency of the hon. Member for Birkenhead, but also Runcorn, St Helens and Southport—all in the Liverpool city region. All the towns fund proposals for those areas include measures to improve local transport connectivity.
England’s eight large metropolitan areas, including the Liverpool city region, are the mainstays of our work to level up the UK. We will invest £5.7 billion in the transport networks of those city regions through the city region sustainable transport settlements programme, including £710 million in the Liverpool city region. That funding will provide the Mayor with the flexibility to invest in local priorities, many of which have been applauded by hon. Members today. In Birkenhead, that funding will support further investment in the town centre, including, at Hind Street, the removal of the flyover that links the local highway network to the Queensway tunnel toll plaza and severs the town.
While I welcome any town or regeneration funds, the funding the Minister mentions is specifically for the regeneration of Birkenhead. What we are talking about is transformational change in transport. I have not heard in the Minister’s response about any changes that are coming any time soon. That is what we are talking about: transformational change to buses and transport on Merseyside and in the Liverpool city region.
In the 26 seconds left, I will say that the national bus strategy, which is part of a £3 billion spend on buses over this Parliament, should address many of the issues about buses raised by hon. Members. Obviously, during the pandemic, we provided £1.5 billion in emergency funding to keep the buses in the region going. We have supplied the region with £710 million in dedicated funding for active travel, and more has been announced by the Chancellor as part of a £2 billion package.[Official Report, 17 January 2022, Vol. 707, c. 2MC.]
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).