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Public Transport: Carshalton and Wallington

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2024

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

Mr Deputy Speaker, as we approach the recess, may I wish you and all colleagues a very happy Easter?

Today, I would like to address the adequacy of public transport in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency, which is one of the worst boroughs for public transport connectivity in Greater London. Being able to move around quickly and conveniently, as well as easily to commute to jobs and businesses across London, is vital for a vibrant economy and community, and my constituents living on the edges of London and Surrey deserve the same levels of connectivity that the rest of our capital enjoys.

I would like to mention a variety of areas of public transport from trains to buses, the Overground and, of course, our roads. There are also areas where transport provision could be much strengthened, and I will no doubt touch on some of those a little later. My constituents in Carshalton and Wallington have been deprived of consistent and reliable public transport by the Mayor of London, backed up by a Liberal Democrat council. Rather than help improve our connectivity, the Mayor and the council have overseen the shelving of the tram extension; the scrapping entirely of the Go Sutton bus; the possibility of reducing bus services such as the 410; the scrapping of the 455, and replacing it with an inconvenient existing route; and all this while bringing in the so-called Superloop, which is just the rebranding of an existing bus route.

Before the pandemic, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) were keen to begin discussions on an extension to the London Overground from West Croydon to Sutton, but the sheer mismanagement of TfL’s finances by the Mayor means that is now unlikely. To almost no one’s surprise, the Mayor is asleep at the wheel, otherwise occupied with his vanity projects, and too busy imposing the ultra low emission zone on my constituents. He seems content to leave my constituency stranded without a public transport system that it can be proud of.

Since the pandemic, rail services to stations at Carshalton, Wallington, Hackbridge and Carshalton Beeches have been running at a reduced level. Regular, consistent services are vital to connect my constituents with employment, education and essential services in other parts of London, and of course Surrey. That reduced service means fewer trains from Carshalton to London Victoria. Indeed, something like half the existing services are running, which has meant a significant reduction in accessibility and convenience. Off-peak services from Carshalton Beeches and Wallington to West Croydon and beyond have been reduced from six to four trains per hour. Fortunately, Thameslink services to Blackfriars have remained unchanged, which offers some semblance of stability, but the overall picture paints a concerning narrative of dwindling connectivity and accessibility for my constituents.

I have long campaigned for, and been successful in convincing rail operators to restore, some of the peak-time services post covid, as well as extending the number of carriages on some peak-time services. However, those services are still too far from what they used to be, and my mailbag is often filled with correspondence from constituents who have been unable to board extremely busy weekend rail services made up of just four or five carriages. I would appreciate any support the Minister can provide to help convince rail operators to restore more peak-time rail services, as well as adequate numbers of carriages on trains and adequate weekend services.

Staying on the topic of rail, I wish to thank Network Rail and Govia Thameslink Rail, which operates Southern and Thameslink, for their continued engagement with me in a number of different areas. One of those is the southbound platform at Hackbridge station, and we have now secured funding to fix what I call the Hackbridge gap problem. That gap is a huge step down from train to platform. It is extremely dangerous, and many people have fallen down. The issue has become so serious that some people have had to travel on to the next stop at Carshalton, and come back to Hackbridge via the northbound line because they simply did not feel safe disembarking from Hackbridge station. I am glad that we have secured funding to do that, and I look forward to seeing the project get under way.

I have also been campaigning hard for step-free access to the southbound platform at Carshalton Beeches station. We have put in several Access for All applications over the years, and I hope that the Minister will give some indication as to when the next round might be available for comment. I sincerely hope that we will be successful this time round, so that once again people do not have to travel on to Sutton, the next station, and come back to Carshalton Beeches the other way in order to disembark safely.

Moving slightly outside my constituency, if I may, another area that would greatly improve transport for my constituents—indeed, this is probably the major sticking point when it comes to increasing rail capacity for my constituency and most of suburban London—is the Croydon area remodelling scheme, which is the major junction on the Brighton main line and the suburban rail network in south London and the home counties. The project does a number of things. It would upgrade East Croydon station and the surrounding rail infrastructure to enhance capacity and efficiency, and it encompasses several pivotal elements, including the revitalisation and renovation of the station itself, the remodelling of Selhurst junction, which is where trains are becoming congested, and the expansion of railway tracks north of East Croydon.

The capacity issues that that project would resolve are often the sticking point for running more rail services in the region. Indeed, GTR and Network Rail have spoken regularly about their ambitions to make suburban rail services a lot more like the metro system that we have on the London underground—a sort of turn-up-and-go system, rather than the strict and limited timetable we currently have.

By delivering on the Croydon area remodelling scheme, or the Croydon bottleneck, we would help alleviate the congestion, which would be good not just for my constituents, but for the majority of London and the south-east. It would unlock rail capacity all the way down to Brighton and parts of the south coast, as well as in the capital. In the words of the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman):

“In the current economic context, it is more important than ever for the enhancement schemes we take forward to be affordable and respond to changes in demand for travel”.

That is exactly what the Croydon area remodelling scheme would deliver.

Moreover, as we await updates to the rail network enhancements pipeline, it is essential to acknowledge the broader context in which the Croydon area remodelling scheme operates. The Government’s commitment to rail enhancements, shown through the Network North announcements, reflects an effort to modernise and expand railway infrastructure across the country, and they should be commended for that. The Croydon area remodelling scheme would bring a more efficient, sustainable and interconnected transport network to London and the south-east, and show clear improvements, not least to rail capacity, for my constituents in Carshalton and Wallington.

Finally, I want to talk about connectivity by road, which is still the most common form of transport in my constituency. The one thing that is attacking my constituents the most and causing them the most grief is the dreaded expansion of the ultra low emission zone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who brought in a Bill to overturn ULEZ. It was incredibly welcome that the Government gave it their backing, but very disappointing that Labour and the Liberal Democrats tried to prevent the Bill from progressing. In fact, Labour Members talked out the Bill to prevent its passage through this House.

As the Secretary of State has rightly said, ULEZ is a cruel form of taxation affecting the poorest in society and hitting heavily those who have older motor vehicles that they simply cannot afford to upgrade, with or without a scrappage scheme. My constituents regularly raise their concerns about ULEZ with me, and I completely agree with them. As I have stressed, the Mayor fails to acknowledge the poor connectivity of Carshalton and Wallington. On top of that, he has decided to tax the most hard-working, poorest Londoners. It is time that the pollution argument that is often made when it comes to ULEZ was eradicated. Genuine concern for the environment would involve a complete ban of non-compliant vehicles, not a charge to use them. Provided that Khan finds himself with an additional £12.50 per car in the TfL coffers, people can drive as they please.

The evidence is clear from the Mayor’s own impact assessment and assessments that have been done since that this is not about air quality, but about the Mayor’s inability to manage TfL’s finances. The expansion scheme was roundly rejected by the people of London, as can be evidenced through his consultation, yet the Mayor, backed by the Lib Dems and the Greens in City Hall, all gleefully voted in favour of it. In fact, the Lib Dems boasted that it was their idea in the first place. The Mayor went ahead with this tax on motorists, and he did not even mention it in his manifesto to get elected.

I urge caution to those voters who are now being told by the Mayor that he will not bring in any more charges if he gets re-elected—do not believe it. We know that the Mayor of London is currently looking, and has employed people in TfL to look, at a pay-per-mile scheme, which means that every single car driver in Greater London will be charged not only for using their car, no matter whether it is compliant, but for how long and how far they drive it. We must reject that. We must get rid of the Mayor of London on 2 May and replace him with someone who will not charge car drivers, and that is Susan Hall.

Between 26 September and 6 November, in the early stages of the expanded ULEZ, something like 2,700 fines were issued in Sutton, and nearly 100,000 in London as a whole, once again proving that ULEZ is simply a money-making scheme. I have heard from many of my constituents that they have not been accepted for the scrappage scheme. Only about a third of applications in my borough have been accepted so far, yet these people simply cannot afford to upgrade their vehicles. That places a huge burden on people and is a threat to their livelihoods.

The ULEZ charge means that elderly people are isolated in their homes because they cannot afford to get in the car and leave, and people are not coming to visit them. Small businesses either have to pass the £12.50 charge on to their customers or absorb it, at a time when they are struggling as well. It means the Royal Marsden cancer hospital has to refund cancer patients £12.50 a day to come to Sutton to receive treatment for cancer. The NHS should not be having to reimburse ULEZ charges to cancer patients. There should not be ULEZ charges on cancer patients, and yet that is the reality we live with in Sutton. Nurses, doctors, teachers, parents, charities and businesses are all being affected by the ULEZ charge, and hard-working Londoners deserve better.

To conclude, I ask the Minister whether he will continue to work with me to see what we can do to improve public transport connectivity at a time when the Mayor is clearly not interested in doing so, and when the Lib Dems gave up on my area a long time ago. I very much welcome the Minister. He has been a great friend to Carshalton and Wallington. He has visited before in other Government roles, so I would be delighted to welcome him back to see the transport opportunities in Carshalton and Wallington.

Will the Minister reiterate from the Dispatch Box that the Mayor’s unwanted ULEZ charge on Londoners does not help my constituents? Labour should have backed the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford last week. The ULEZ charge places a burden on people at a time when they can least afford it. We should be looking to increase the public transport connectivity of London, rather than attacking those who cannot change to an alternative.

There is a sense of déjà vu for you and me, Mr Deputy Speaker, because the last debate before the House rose for Christmas featured yourself as the Deputy Speaker; the Transport Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), honourably fighting the fight on behalf of the Department for Transport; and my good self, making the case at the Dispatch Box on an Adjournment debate. It is a privilege and honour to be the last Minister to speak at the Dispatch Box before Easter.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who said at the outset that we need to wish everybody in the House who works so hard to keep us safe in this place that we cherish, love and adore a very happy Easter and a gentle rest over the Easter holidays, so that we all emerge recharged, rebooted and ready to keep the flavour of democracy alive on an ongoing basis, because that really matters. Having the opportunity to address the House, make the case for democracy and for individual constituents, and bring their concerns, hopes, fears and aspirations to this place is something we should all cherish and adore.

It is a great honour and privilege to respond to my hon. Friend. I have visited his constituency in the past; I would be delighted to visit it again, and I look forward to doing so in the next few weeks. To answer his three points at the outset before I get into the nuts and bolts of the issue, I would be delighted to work with him on the causes he has set out and delighted to visit soon.

I am also delighted to make the case that ULEZ is a blunt instrument, and we will discuss that in a bit more detail, although I assure the House that we will not spend the next two hours and seven minutes discussing it. ULEZ is a blunt instrument that needs to be taken in the context of the individual circumstances of the Londoners and outer Londoners whom it affects. It needs to take into account the impact it has on low-income and public sector workers, because the stats on that are genuinely horrifying. It is not something—with great respect—that is being dealt with sensitivity. It is not being done under the Mayor’s manifesto. I was the Minister who responded to the Bill last Friday on behalf of the Government, and I will touch on that in some detail.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues, which I want to address. The first is the issue of the Mayor and his finances because, as my hon. Friend will be aware and as the Secretary of State has put on the record in writing, the Mayor had to be bailed out by a multibillion-pound settlement due to his mismanagement of his funds. Clearly, that has had an impact on the provision of bus services, which are key. As the Minister for buses, I am passionate about buses and the growth in bus services post covid. I am alarmed and concerned to hear about the litany of bus services that have been lost in my hon. Friend’s constituency due to the actions of the Mayor.

I regret to say that I have no power whatsoever to intervene in the mayoral zone to address any of the bus losses or to nudge individual operators to make changes. I will come to rail in a second, because we have some power there. I know that my hon. Friend has worked with the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), in copious detail to address those issues. That is the reality of the mayoral situation on buses, and it is of great concern.

Only yesterday, I met my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) to have an hour-long discussion with bus operators to thrash out difficulties and try to find a way for the bus service improvement plan and bus service operators grant to address particular issues. That ability does not exist, unless the Mayor provides the right sort of assistance and prioritises the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington. On buses, regretfully I am powerless to intervene, but his constituents have the ultimate power to do so, and I urge them to do that for the reasons that he set out and that I utterly endorse. I put my backing behind Susan Hall.

I know that my hon. Friend has worked with the Rail Minister over a period of time to try to improve and enhance the rail service that his constituents sometimes have enjoyed and sometimes have not. As someone who commutes in from south London when I am here in Westminster, I have experienced some of that pain. I accept that there are ongoing difficulties, some of which have been addressed—he rightly identified the companies that have assisted him and played ball. We are at about 85% of pre-covid numbers. I assure him that the Rail Minister is happy to meet him, operators and particular cohorts of constituents and councillors to discuss potential improvements and further ongoing work that can be done.

My hon. Friend raised the important issue of the Croydon area remodelling scheme. I agree that it is clearly a massive improvement and enhancement that we should get behind. Such an investment will be a massive improvement and be of wider benefit to his constituents. On the other rail and infrastructure projects, he talked about Govia Thameslink Railway—GTR. He has worked closely with that operator on the services that it provides, particularly the busy weekend services between Carshalton and London Victoria, which are vital. He rightly made the point that timetable changes will take effect from June 2024, and services will run with eight to 10 carriages, rather than five as some did previously. I am sure that he will welcome the additional capacity for passengers using those services. We require all train operators to continually review the services they provide so that their timetables reflect changing passenger demand, carefully balancing cost, capacity and performance.

My hon. Friend raised Access for All, which he has championed repeatedly. He would love me to triumphantly pull out the Oscar-winning envelope from this Dispatch Box and confirm the campaign that he has fought for so assiduously for so long. I regret that I cannot do that today, but in time-honoured tradition I can confirm that the next announcement on extending Access for All and improving rail accessibility will be made very shortly. He has made his case repeatedly. If he has not again met the Rail Minister who oversees that issue, I will personally communicate that to him, so that he fully understands how much it matters to my hon. Friend’s constituents and how brilliantly he has made the case.

On ULEZ, there are a number of myths I want to address. We need a genuine discussion on this issue. My hon. Friend spent about five minutes of his speech on it, and I want to spend some time on it in response. The principle of having a clean air zone in the centre of a city is, I think, utterly without dispute. The Government legislated for that, and local authorities and mayors agree with it. For those of us who are right in the heart of the city in Westminster, the original congestion zone makes total sense and is fully understandable. There is an argument —it is a hard argument to make, but there is an argument—that there was authority to extend it out to the south circular and the north circular, and that that would be a wider congestion zone. But it is patently clear from reading the present Mayor of London’s manifesto—I spent rather too long reading it; an hour and a bit of my life I will never get back—that there is no argument whatever for the extension that has taken place. My hon. Friend rightly talked about the consultation and the responses to it. The best I can do is make two points.

First, take the congestion zone in Bristol, which is clearly relatively successful. It was introduced with due consideration of businesses and people living in the heart of the city, trying to keep a vibrant city going. That congestion zone is one mile by two—basically, two square miles. The London congestion zone has now gone up to approximately 600 square miles. It is 50 miles by 50 miles. The impact on the wider economy of London —park for a moment the air quality, because he rightly addressed that—is obviously massive. Everybody who lives and works in London can see that. It has had a tremendous impact on the businesses that we all want to support.

Secondly, there is a democratic deficit. When the ULEZ is extended so far out to those on the outer limits of London and those who live beyond the London boundary, they are clearly penalised in a very significant way. More particularly, the penalty falls on two groups. I take this from its own impact assessment, as I and others set out in the House on Friday. It falls on the low-income group and on public sector workers—surely the worst groups to be trying to penalise with an extra tax. Anybody who knows anything about the public sector knows it is really hard to get NHS workers, care workers and police officers in central London. I could go on.

The Minister is absolutely right about public sector workers. I mentioned that the Royal Marsden Hospital is having to refund ULEZ charges to cancer patients. One other point we must surely consider is that something like half of all Metropolitan police officers live outside the geographical area of Greater London. No wonder people do not feel that they can come and work in the city if they have to pay £12.50 a day. Does the Minister agree that ULEZ will surely have an adverse effect on crime in London if the majority of our officers have to travel in and pay £12.50 a day to police our streets?

My hon. Friend has brilliant eyesight, because he can see the highlighted passage I was about to read out, showing that 50% of police officers in the Metropolitan police area live outside the London boundary and commute in. The percentage for all emergency workers is probably not far off that. There is no doubt that there will be a recruitment issue in all those sectors. I have spent three and a half weeks of my life in St Thomas’ Hospital, requiring intensive care—and on not one but two occasions, because I am so accident prone. Someone may require overnight nursing care, for example, and a nurse coming into London from outside will be penalised on the day she comes in, and when she leaves her night shift she will be penalised again. She will be landed with a double whammy of a ULEZ charge—and then we are surprised that London hospitals are struggling to retain staff.

Is there evidence that ULEZ is making a dramatic difference to air quality? The evidence that has been set out in a variety of ways suggests that improvement is minimal in some respects, especially in the outer reaches. Is there an impact on the economy? Definitely: there is a negative impact. Is there an impact on public services, public sector workers and the low-income people who, according to the impact assessment, will be more affected by ULEZ expansion? There is not a shadow of a doubt that that is the case. I do not want to get too political on the last day before the Easter recess, but my hon. Friend asked what would happen in the future, and the idea that the present Mayor will not expand the impact of the ULEZ is for the birds. It is a bit like asking, “Are there moustaches in Mexico?” or “Do bears go to the toilet in the woods?” We both know that what the Mayor is proposing to do is to extend the present proposal in a variety of ways.

The key point that was made on Friday by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French), my right hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) and for Ashford (Damian Green), my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—from a sedentary position—and various colleagues from Watford was that great thought should be given to the benefits of this public policy as against the massive burdens that are being imposed. We must clearly consider why we are doing this on an ongoing basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington remains a massive champion of this issue, and I should be delighted to see the changes that he seeks. Of course, the Rail Minister will continue to work with him, and good work is being done. We want to continue to support him and his constituents. I commend him for bringing the debate to the House before Easter, and I commend his efforts on behalf of his constituents.

On behalf of Mr Speaker and the other Deputy Speakers, I echo the words of the Minister and Elliot Colburn in wishing a very happy Easter to everyone who works here to ensure that our democracy progresses. I hope that they will get together with their families and friends, and to those who sadly cannot do that because they are providing services to the rest of us, I say a great thank you on behalf of the nation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.