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Pokesdown Railway Station

Volume 725: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2023

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

I am sure colleagues will be delighted to stay to listen to this Adjournment debate on the upgrade of Pokesdown for Boscombe railway station—to give it its full name.

To place the area and the issue in context, Bournemouth is a relatively new town, founded just over 200 years ago and sitting between the ancient towns of Poole and Christchurch, both named in the Domesday Book. The latter part of the 19th century saw this beautiful stretch of the southern coastline become a popular place to live, work and visit, thanks largely to the new railway line, which was run in those days by the London and South Western Railway.

In those Victorian days, Boscombe certainly hogged the wicket, with grand hotels, theatres, music halls, its own football club, Boscombe—now better known as Athletic Football Club Bournemouth—and spas that rivalled that found in Bath, attracting the wealthiest in society to the coastline. They even prompted Sir Percy Florence Shelley, son of the novelist Mary Shelley, to buy an estate in this area for his mother, who is now buried in St Peter’s Church.

In the 1880s, both Boscombe and Pokesdown had their own railway stops on the London to Weymouth line, but, as Bournemouth’s population and popularity grew in size and status, it progressively took over as the focus of the conurbation. The decline in the traditional English holiday in the 1970s and ’80s was also tough on an area that had come to lean so heavily on domestic tourism.

Today, however, investments in the communities of Boscombe and Pokesdown are seeing a rejuvenation in its fortunes—pioneered thanks to the local council’s master plan, with the towns fund, to upgrade shopping centres, pedestrian areas and park space, improve modern housing, transform the seafront attractions and revitalise local transport schemes. That is helped, of course, by the success of AFC Bournemouth, our wonderful football club.

That brings me nicely to Pokesdown railway station, for the one piece of the jigsaw that has not kept up with this welcome renaissance is local transport infrastructure. In the time that I have been campaigning to upgrade the Boscombe railway station, Bournemouth’s mainline railway station, which many colleagues will have visited in the past because of conferences, has received not just a lick of paint, but an entire redesign. To be clear, I very much welcome that, but my concern is why, when there are similar plans for Pokesdown station, they are not being acted on.

Let me first describe the station. There is no way of dodging this: it is less than welcoming—indeed, it is pretty grim. The line is a cutaway, so while the station entrances are on ground level, the platforms are 20 m below, so that natural light is limited. There are no staff at the station, its ticket counters are automated and for decades the lifts have sat dormant, broken and rusting away. First impressions count, and anyone visiting Pokesdown for Boscombe station for the first time will not be impressed by the state of it.

In preparation for this debate, I have been looking through my old notes on the matter. I began lobbying to improve the station back in 2016, and in fact I have a Department of Transport letter dated 26 May 2016 from the railways Minister at the time, Claire Perry—she has been in the news recently, although not because of my railway station. Each time I have met another Transport Minister, the same story applies: plans are in progress, tenders are being lined up, work will start soon. I really hope that that is not the generic message that I will hear from the Minister today.

It is really not complicated; we are not redesigning Waterloo or building a brand-new station. The stakeholders involved here are the local council, South Western Railway, Network Rail and the Department for Transport. I have held individual meetings and collective Zoom conference calls to try to nudge this project forward. I and the local community originally wanted the lifts, which had been broken for 35 years, to be improved—that is all. We had some passionate public meetings. Families with babies and toddlers who use prams, pushchairs, buggies and strollers want step-free access to the platforms. Those in wheelchairs do not want to have to disembark at Bournemouth station and trek back in a taxi. There are many elderly residents who are mobile but may find the 44 steps a challenge.

The money is there—I have lobbied for it. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council has pledged £2.6 million, and South Western Railway and Network Rail have committed £3.1 million, providing a total of £5.7 million. The Department for Transport has approved the plans, so the £5.7 million question is, “Why has the work not started?”

I accept that the project has grown. It became clear that funds were available not only to repair the lifts, but to repaint the station, modernise the forecourt and platform canopies, improve security and fencing, upgrade the footbridge and even introduce station wi-fi, and who would say no to that? Even AFC Bournemouth, whose ground is only a stone’s throw from the station, has offered to help to give the station some local personality by using its large football montages to brighten the platform. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff Mostyn, the former chairman and now ambassador of that club, who has been so supportive in the community. He is now equally baffled by why progress has not been made.

Seven years since I started lobbying a previous railways Minister, I ask this Minister, “Please, can we fix the lifts?” Almost half a million people now use Pokesdown for Boscombe railway station every year. In business, in hospitality and residential-wise, the area is now flourishing and growing. The money is in place, the council is on board, South Western Railway and Network Rail are committed, the community is fully behind this, as is our wonderful football club, so what are we waiting for?

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I hope that he will use this opportunity to confirm that committed funds for the station upgrade will be honoured; that tenders, contracts and plans have now been agreed and are in place; that there is now a fixed date for work to commence, with the lift replacements taking priority; and that he himself will be willing to visit my constituency on the date that work commences to make sure that it does actually start.

It is a real honour and privilege to represent Bournemouth East. It has been so encouraging to see Boscombe and Pokesdown rekindling and advancing their own identities as vibrant communities within the Bournemouth conurbation. So let us honour the promises to upgrade the railway station. Let us fix this problem, which has been neglected for so long. Let us finally get the job done.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing this debate on improvements at Pokesdown station. I have listened to all he has had to say to me and to my numerous predecessors on this matter, and I will endeavour to give him the reassurance that he seeks. I will be able to give him some timelines as well, and I very much hope that we can be held to them and that, together, we can deliver all that he is asking for.

I will start by reassuring my right hon. Friend that £5.7 million of funding has been agreed, as he is aware, and is still there, as he was seeking to ensure. That money will go towards facilitating improvements at Pokesdown station. It has been jointly funded by Network Rail, South Western Railway and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council. All the funding has been provided to Network Rail so that the works can be carried out. They are essential works, as he rightly said. I also want to say how grateful I am to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council for providing, together with Network Rail and South Western Railway, the funds required to start these necessary improvements at Pokesdown station.

I am aware, and my right hon. Friend detailed it in his speech, that Boscombe has fabulous beaches, and that is the area where the station can be found, but there are pockets of deprivation within that area. I am aware, as an East Sussex coastal MP, that not all parts of our coast have the same level of comfort of having the services or, indeed, the populace that stations require. There are other stations that require regeneration, and I believe this may fit within that description. It is vital that we do everything we can to ensure that rail customers get accessibility and improved facilities, but also benefit from the lift that gives to the rest of the area. While much of the focus on levelling up has been on the north, I am aware that funding further south will also give those same opportunities to deliver improvements to the tangible benefit of rail users in the area.

My right hon. Friend certainly deserves an update on timescales and where we have got to, and I can give him that. We expect the canopies to be completed by mid-2023—so, by the middle of this year—and the footbridge by mid-2024 at the latest. On the lifts, Network Rail expects to award the tender for the outline design of the lifts by the end of this month. This stage of work is anticipated to be completed by July this year, at which point the design will be tendered to establish a detailed design and construction cost. Network Rail, in agreement with the train operator and the local council that has so generously assisted with funds, hopes to be able to award the construction contract, subject to the tender cost being within the budget, later this year. The actual construction timeframe will not be known to an accurate level until the detailed design is complete later in the year and suitable track possessions have been booked.

First, may I just thank the Minister for clearly looking carefully at the details and confirming many of the things that I have requested? If I may, I would like to take this opportunity just to underline the importance of those lifts, because he has outlined a process, and it does seem that it is still taking some time to complete. I am pleased about the canopies and the footbridge, but what locals want most urgently is for the lifts to be completed. Is there anything he can do to expedite the tender process and the awarding of a contract to make sure that the work can commence as early as possible?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I listened in some detail to his point that this started with a request that lifts be working, then all of a sudden a lot more money was promised to the scheme. That is a positive, but within that it is taking an awfully long time to deliver, which means that the starting issue still remains. Having been put into post a few months ago, it is clear to me that there is a danger that we over-engineer projects and do not deliver the fix that the community has been seeking.

While I am pleased that the accessibility fund will have delivered 300 accessible stations by the end of next year, with improvements to more than 1,000 more stations—indeed, we have done an audit of all stations; that is 90% complete, and we will be publishing details in spring—I am absolutely dedicated to ensuring that where we have signed off projects, we get on with them. We should not overcomplicate them, but make sure they are delivered, otherwise, for the years that they are not, people have missed out on those accessibility improvements. My right hon. Friend has that assurance from me, and indeed he has the assurance that I will follow this project and ensure that the timescales we give to this House are met or that there are good reasons why they are not.

My right hon. Friend referenced many of my predecessors, and I am grateful to them for recommending that the improvements take place. I am also grateful and want to pay tribute to him for the work he has done in securing additional funding from his local council to ensure that the scope will include lifts, canopy and footbridge. I recognise the frustration, as I hope has come across, in the length of time it has taken to get the project off the ground. I have referenced some of the reasons for that—we have had delays in securing the funding and finalising the overall scope of the project. However, I am now confident the scheme is on the right track towards delivery, and I will do everything I can to ensure that that takes place.

On that basis, I look forward to the whole project being completed by the end of 2024—having started much earlier than that, it can be delivered by 2024. I recognise my right hon. Friend’s frustration, and I am sorry for and regret the delays. I hope that I will be the rail Minister that works with him to ensure the completion of the project, and I very much look forward to coming down to visit Pokesdown station to see the benefits from this project for all rail users.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.