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Hedge End Train Station: Accessibility

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2022

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

From a debate about accessibility in our Parliament, we move to a debate that I am pleased to have secured about an issue that has been a long-standing concern for my constituents living in Hedge End, Botley, West End and Fair Oak: the lack of accessibility at Hedge End train station. I rise two years after having first outlined the issue in an Adjournment debate in October 2020, with the problems I will revisit not having been resolved, and the factors exacerbating those accessibility issues getting worse.

I place on the record my congratulations to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), and welcome him to his place. I had the privilege of working very closely with him as his Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Home Office, and I know that his attitude at that Department will be borne out in his new Department. I say to him gently that with great responsibility comes great expectation, and he should know that there is great expectation in Hedge End and from the hon. Member for Eastleigh. We look forward to his summing up of this debate.

There is at this time a concerning gap in accessibility in provision in the region where my constituency is based. For example, I was concerned to learn that only 43% of stations in Hampshire have step-free access—among the lowest count among the counties of the UK. In addition, only 24% have an accessible ticket office and 32% have national key toilets. However, before I lay out the case for Hedge End and the need to improve station accessibility there, I want to address the context of this debate and provide the Minister with some of the details of the situation in my constituency.

Just before my hon. Friend lays out the context of the debate, he talked about the trains that go to Hedge End. Can I tell him that the most used station on that line is Raynes Park, and I have been campaigning for the last five years to get step-free access and accessibility there? It is the most used station, so the points he is making about Hedge End and Hampshire apply across the region, and I hope the Minister in his summing up will talk a bit about the new fund that might be available at some stage for these great schemes.

My hon. Friend raises a very good point. I will let the House into a secret. I was his parliamentary researcher, so I hold some of the responsibility for not managing to get that station in Raynes Park its accessibility grants, but he is a tireless campaigner for his constituency. In Eastleigh and at Hedge End, we obviously have some work to do to get the amount of people he has at Raynes Park, but he outlines a point that is very important and very similar to that in my constituency. I know Raynes Park station very well, having been around with him in his constituency. People have a choice there: they can get a taxi to Wimbledon if they cannot make the footbridge, or make the journey across the footbridge at Raynes Park. He has not been campaigning for this for five years—I started working for him in 2011 and I know that it was an issue he brought up then. I know that he will continue to do that and I hope the Minister will outline in his response some good news for Wimbledon as well as for Hedge End and Eastleigh.

Going back to the case in Eastleigh, I am proud that the Eastleigh constituency is a thriving community. I have noted previously that the population in my patch has grown by 15% in the last 20 years, a clear sign that Eastleigh acts as a magnet for families and individuals seeking a great place to live. This has of course led to a corresponding, but in my view reckless increase in house building by the Liberal Democrat council, Eastleigh Borough Council, particularly in Hedge End, which I also regret has not been met with an increase in investment in suitable infrastructure locally to guide development in a reasonable and responsible manner.

The problem continues with speculative housing developments and large-scale developments being built in the borough, which historically has been caused by the failure of that local council to develop a local plan. The volume of new housing in Hedge End has been substantial. Between 2001 and 2011, new homes delivered at Dowd’s Farm, a major strategic development in Hedge End North, increased the population in that borough council ward by 33.6%; that was in 10 years. Between 2011 and now, major new housing developments have delivered a further 450 new homes, with more housing delivered not only as part of Dowd’s Farm, but at Kings Copse Road and St John’s Road. But that is just the start of it.

Eastleigh Borough Council has either granted planning permission or allocated space for a further 738 new homes to be built in Hedge End in the next 10 years. Most damagingly, a new council-built development of 2,500 homes in the village of Fair Oak and Horton Heath will mean that infrastructure will be under immense strain, with no substantive contributions to the improvement of Hedge End station just down the road. In simple terms, families are moving into the area, but are being forced to use roads, not rail, to go about their journeys. Anyone with a disability, children or the elderly, when returning from London to my constituency at Hedge End, has to alight at Eastleigh or Southampton Airport Parkway station, 6.4 miles away from Hedge End, which is now the second largest settlement within my constituency of Eastleigh.

Towns and villages such as Hedge End, Botley, Bursledon and Hamble are served by small stations that lack the facilities required to serve growing settlements. Many of my constituents choose to live in Hedge End because of the railway connections to London, the great sense of community and excellent local schools. That explains why Hedge End station is well used, with more than 522,000 entries and exits before the pandemic. That was up from 506,000 in 2017. However, for some people in my constituency entering the station is not as easy as exiting it, and I hope that the Minister can assist with that. Parents with disabled children, disabled adults and parents with pushchairs or prams cannot use Hedge End station to travel, because there are no lifts or wheelchair or pushchair-accessible facilities at the station. Travellers and commuters with mobility issues are left, as I have mentioned, in the unacceptable situation of being able to take the train to London from Hedge End—a journey of about 70 miles—but being forced to alight at Southampton Airport, Eastleigh, Fareham or other stations towards Portsmouth on their return journey. At Hedge End station, there is an even worse situation, as the car park is on the side of the station adjacent to the line that goes to London. Anyone returning from London cannot get to their car easily—they may have to take a taxi or make a long walk to get to the other side of the station. That is not suitable for people with disabilities.

The small sum of money required to upgrade the station would mean that pressure points at Southampton Airport Parkway and Eastleigh would be reduced, giving better access for communities in the southern half of my constituency while relieving the burden on the pressured road network. Journeys from Southampton Airport Parkway and Eastleigh, which are the closest stations to Hedge End and over 6 miles away by car or taxi, naturally incur additional costs and inconvenience. The lack of access to the station means that people in the southern half of my constituency are forced to travel to Southampton Airport parkway, which is used annually by 1.7 million passengers, or to Eastleigh, which is used annually by 1.6 million passengers. They can only access those stations by driving through the towns of Fair Oak, Horton Heath or Bishopstoke, or by driving down the M27. With the extension of the runway at Southampton airport, which I completely support, those two stations will only become busier, becoming pinch points in that section of the network.

That creates another problem. Our towns and villages, such as Eastleigh, Bishopstoke and Fair Oak, are struggling with a lack of investment in road infrastructure caused by housing overdevelopment. That means that the roads around Eastleigh and Southampton airport station are often blocked in the rush hour and are inaccessible. There is a wider point, in that the Government quite rightly—I completely support them—argue that we need greener and more sustainable forms of travel. I agree, but the current facilities at Hedge End station do not facilitate that, and in many respects actively discourage it. That is, of course, bad for passengers, bad for the environment and bad for our local transport networks.

If the Minister cannot respond tonight on funding provision, I urge him to return to the Department and look at a wholesale review of the funding processes for accessibility to local train stations. There is a bid in at the moment from South Western Railway to secure accessibility funding for Hedge End, but the periodic nature of the funding process and the lack of clarity from central Government on the process for applications mean that we need to look at a wholesale review of the British rail network across all four countries in the UK to see whether the Government can do more to alleviate some of the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and I have outlined.

The Minister will know that levelling up is not just about solving a geographical problem between north and south. It is about equal opportunity and better outcomes for those who are disadvantaged. Quite frankly, in this context, that is not happening in my constituency when it comes to travel. I firmly believe that with the installation of either a lift or wheelchair-accessible facilities at Hedge End station, we can achieve exactly the sort of results that are at the heart of this Government’s agenda. We can give disabled people the opportunity to travel for work and enjoyment, and we can make life better for families and parents with young children. We can improve our environment by getting more cars off the road—something that my constituents want to do, but which they cannot because of the type of development that has taken place and the lack of accessibility at Hedge End and stations further on, such as the one at Botley in the southern half of my constituency. We can make sustainable travel alternatives a sensible, viable option for my constituents and the wider community.

Now is the time for the Government to put their money where their mouth is and finally deliver infrastructure improvements that my constituents are desperately seeking and which they quite rightly expect. Given the excessive development and a growing population, the disabled, the ageing and the parents in my constituency need to have this sorted, and they need to have it sorted very quickly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on securing this debate on rail accessibility at Hedge End station in his constituency. This might be my first trip to the Dispatch Box as Rail Minister, but I know that it is far from the first time that the issue has been raised on the Floor of the House. Thanks to his determined campaigning efforts, this is, I think, the second such debate since his election in 2019. The debate is a good opportunity not only to reply to his points about Hedge End but to set out the Government’s continued work to make our rail network more accessible for all passengers.

Transport is at the heart of how we go about our daily lives. It gets us to work and places of education, allows us to run our businesses efficiently and enables us to build connections with people all over the country. More than 14 million people in Great Britain identify as having a disability, and even more people will find that they have struggled to access a railway station due to a mobility issue. The Government recognise how inaccessible transport is a barrier to unlocking their potential, as my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) outlined. However, while our railway’s heritage is magnificent, it means that many stations date from a time when the needs of disabled customers were simply not considered, and the infrastructure available reflects that.

While we estimate that 75% of rail journeys are made through step-free stations, we recognise that only about a fifth of all stations have full step-free accessible routes into the station and, crucially, between each platform. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh highlighted this with Hedge End, and I can think of a station in my constituency where access to one platform can be achieved only via two flights of steps. For some, that situation at their local station is the barrier preventing them from using rail at all, and that is fundamentally unfair.

Making rail fully accessible for all—whether for a person with a disability or, for that matter, for a person struggling with a heavy pushchair or a suitcase—is of great importance to the Government. The inclusive transport strategy published in 2018 set out our ambition for all disabled people to have equal access to transport by 2030. Where physical infrastructure remains a barrier, assistance may also play a role in making access equal. Good progress is being made on the commitments set out in the strategy. In 2021, we published the plan for rail, which set out how the railway specifically must evolve to meet the needs of its customers. As part of the plan, the Government announced the development of a national rail accessibility strategy: a step change in rail network accessibility for disabled passengers and those with accessibility needs.

The plan also committed to a comprehensive accessibility audit of rail network facilities to provide us with a complete understanding of what stations in Great Britain look like today and to set us in the direction of change. The benefits of that are twofold. The data generated will be made publicly available, enabling passengers to plan their journeys better. It will also equip the Government and the rail industry to better target future investments to bring stations into the 21st century. The audit is progressing well, with more than 85% of Great British mainline stations already audited and the remainder to be completed by spring 2023. That will give us a really complete picture of what accessibility looks like at each station beyond whether it is step-free.

The Government will continue to push the rail industry to comply with its legal obligations to meet current accessibility standards. The Department also requires train operating companies to set out in their accessible travel policy how passengers can book assistance or alternative accessible transport in advance where accessible infrastructure is not yet available. The passenger assistance programme is in place to make accessible journeys easier, providing support to disabled passengers in planning their journeys with confidence and in safety.

I am very aware that accepting and adapting to current accessibility infrastructure is not enough. We must invest in transforming our rail infrastructure to ensure that it meets accessibility needs for years to come. The Access for All programme does just that. Since launching in 2006, the programme has provided step-free accessible routes at more than 200 stations, including at Southampton Parkway in 2010. It has also provided about 1,500 smaller-scale improvements such as accessible toilets and improved customer information systems—all things that make it easier for someone to make their journey.

The inclusive transport strategy extended the programme to 2024, providing nearly £400 million of additional funding. That will deliver accessible routes at more than 100 additional stations, with 24 already completed since 2019. To accelerate delivery of further step-free accessible routes, we recently closed nominations for stations during the next railway funding period, which begins in 2024. Any station in Great Britain without full step-free access was a potential candidate. I am pleased to say that more than 300 stations were nominated and to confirm that Hedge End was one of those stations. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh for endorsing the nomination. I suspect that another nomination might also have come in from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon. The Department will now assess the nominations with Network Rail, using the same criteria as for previous tranches.

All inaccessible stations deserve funding—we want a network that is accessible for all—but it is essential that the Government allocate Access for All funding fairly, with consideration of a wide range of criteria. The selection process takes into account annual footfall, the incidence of disability in the area and, sometimes, proximity to particular facilities that those with mobility issues might need to access, such as a local hospital. It also considers the availability of third-party funding and the operational views of the rail industry. We will look to continue to ensure a fair geographical spread of projects across the country. I expect to be able to make an announcement on shortlisted stations next year.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh for securing this debate on rail accessibility at Hedge End station. In responding, I wanted to demonstrate the work that the Government are doing to improve rail accessibility, despite the limitations historic buildings and infrastructure place on us. We are improving our knowledge of the accessibility picture on our rail network through the stations accessibility audit. We are setting out our plans for improvements in the upcoming national rail accessibility strategy along with delivering infrastructure improvements through successful programmes such as Access for All.

I am committed to improving rail accessibility for all passengers, so I am grateful for the representations made today by my hon. Friends. They strengthen the case for the work we are doing. I know that my hon. Friends are both constant and active advocates for the needs of their constituents and I know that if there is not a commitment forthcoming in the future this will almost certainly not be the last time we discuss step-free access at Hedge End station on the Floor of the House. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh will realise why it would not be right for me to give him a firm commitment today ahead of the wider announcements on the Access for All scheme, not least given the wider interest among many Members from both sides of the House who have supported and promoted schemes, but I know he will be on my case until he gets what he wants for his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.