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Step-free Access: Battersea Stations

Volume 647: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered step-free access at stations in Battersea.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I speak not only as the Member representing Battersea, but also as someone with a disability, because I am a visually impaired person. My constituency is home to four railway stations. Clapham Junction, the busiest interchange station in the country, served more than 27 million journeys last year and has step-free access to all platforms. However, step-free access to trains remains a significant challenge for many disabled rail travellers; that is a point I shall come to later. The other three stations—Battersea Park, Queenstown Road and Wandsworth Town—at present have no step-free access. In total, more than 7.5 million passengers go through their doors each year but, as the stations do not have step-free access, their doors are closed to people with mobility issues, including a great many disabled people.

Battersea Park station, which had nearly 2 million people passing through its doors last year, was chosen as a station for the Access for All 2014-19 funding cycle. Access for All is a Government programme to fund accessible infrastructure improvements at all train stations. However, that much-needed planned work was put on hold because of the Hendy review of Network Rail’s investment programme. Queenstown Road station, another busy station, which served more than 1.5 million journeys last year, is due to have a fully accessible second entrance as part of the new Battersea Park East development on the north of the site, but there will be no step-free access to the station platforms. Wandsworth Town station, which was the 20th busiest station on the Wessex route, with 4 million journeys last year, is similarly due to have an accessible entrance at its north side as part of the Swandon Way development. Again, however, step-free access will not be provided to all platforms. That raises a question: what is the point of having an accessible step-free entrance, but no step-free access to the actual train platform? I would like the Minister to address that point. I am pleased to say, however, that two new stations currently under construction in Battersea—Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station—are expected to have step-free access.

Battersea Park station and Queenstown Road station are both in Queenstown ward, which has a higher proportion of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions than does the constituency as a whole. Yet their local train stations are not accessible to them. Clapham Junction—a station that is step-free and where more than 6 million journeys are made by disabled people each year—does not guarantee step-free transfers between train and platform, which prevents many disabled passengers from getting on and off trains independently.

Why is what I have described important? We must not underestimate the significance of barriers. Step-free access to stations can mean the difference between the ability to lead a fulfilling and flourishing life seeing friends and family and going to work, and being left isolated at home, unable to travel and excluded from participation, from leading a fulfilling and flourishing life, and from the world of work. That is the reality for far too many disabled people. For example, one man said that the lack of step-free access means that

“you have to consider which jobs you go for, some are just not an option. If someone offered you a promotion and you think there’s a train station around the corner but scope it out and...there’s steps then it will make the difference between going for the job or not.”

Another person spoke of feeling anxiety when having to travel by train, and being unsure whether there would be support at each station. That is also the case where there is no step-free transfer between the train and the platform, which leads to many disabled people having to rely on members of the public for assistance getting off or on a train.

There is no doubt that much more can be done to enable disabled passengers to embark on and disembark from trains independently. It will require meaningful commitment and investment. The Government must step up to that.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. Disability access is an issue in many places. In my constituency, campaigners in Levenshulme have been calling for step-free access for a long time. We are making good progress, which is largely down to the determination of community groups and local representatives who have brought the issue to the fore. Does my hon. Friend agree that all stations in the country should have step-free access as standard, and it should not depend on how organised communities are?

I agree with my hon. Friend and will come on to that point, because many older people’s and disabled people’s groups campaign tirelessly and push for fully step-free access at all stations. My hon. Friend is right that that should be standard.

As well as the lack of step-free access, disabled people face numerous other barriers when they want to travel by train. They include the unreasonable requirement to book assistance in advance—that prevents spontaneous travel and removes the ability to turn up and go—and the expansion of driver-only trains. The removal of guards means that the railways become more inaccessible, and disabled people lose the assistance on trains that many of them require. That is why we must keep guards on trains.

With so many barriers placed in the way of disabled people’s independent travel, it is no surprise that a recent survey by Leonard Cheshire Disability found that more than a third of disabled people experienced problems using trains last year. That highlights the fact that we still cannot say we are a fully inclusive society. Many of those barriers exist because when stations were built, the rights and interests of disabled people were not recognised or acknowledged. It is essential for infrastructure work to be done on stations to modernise them, and for them to be built around everyone’s needs. We would all benefit, and we could truly say that we were a fully inclusive society.

Department for Transport cost-benefit analysis shows that, on a “conservative estimate”, for every £1 invested in the Access for All programme there is a £2.90 benefit to the economy as a whole. However, I am disappointed that the Government’s progress to date has been inadequate. The Access for All programme was founded under the Labour Government in 2006, and it brought about significant benefits, including the funding of the infrastructure improvements that led to Clapham Junction being made step-free in 2011. That has helped to remove some of the barriers that prevent disabled people from travelling by train, but its progress has been too slow, with just one in five stations around the country being fully accessible.

The Conservative-led coalition Government’s Equality 2025 programme created a target for disabled people to have the same access to transportation as non-disabled people by 2025. However, in the 2015 to 2019 rail investment control period, the Government cut £47 million from the Access for All funding. That lost funding should be restored in the 2019 to 2024 rail investment period, but the Government’s commitments, as set out in their recently published inclusive transport strategy, did not appear to do that. After such significant cuts to the Access for All programme, do the Government have any hope of delivering on the transportation aim of Equality 2025?

The process for securing funding needs to be improved—that point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). Access for All funding depends on applications being made to Network Rail. Rail operating companies have to compete for funding, and whether a station is allocated funding depends on the strength of the business case that is put forward. Will the Minister comment on that? Should not the starting point be to ensure that the Access for All programme is adequately funded, so that all stations that require infrastructure work can be covered? All our stations should be accessible by default, and they should all be step-free.

Will the Minister say whether there will be step-free access not just to station entrances, but to platforms? Can she guarantee that all newly built stations will be fully step-free? Given the scale of the work needed and the cuts that have been handed down, when do the Government expect disabled people to have the same access to transport as non-disabled people do? It was once hoped that that would be achieved in seven years, but is there still any hope of that? Will the Minister commit to restoring the £47 million that has been cut from Access for All, so that stations such as Queenstown Road and Wandsworth Town can be made fully step-free?

It is the Government’s responsibility to build an inclusive society, in which the barriers I have spoken about are broken down. To do that, train journeys must be accessible from end to end—that means that someone can get to the station, on to the train, off the train and out of the station at the other end. I call on the Government to put in the investment needed to build an inclusive railway, including accessible stations in Battersea. Finally, I thank those who have provided me with briefings on this important issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on securing this debate and giving colleagues across the House the opportunity to discuss the important subject of accessibility to the rail network as far as Manchester—that is no distance from Battersea! I recognise how important it is for the hon. Lady’s constituents to have access to the railway and to get to and from work, see family and friends, and go about their lives.

Delivering a transport system that is truly accessible to all is of great importance to me, and I hope that the hon. Lady has seen the Department for Transport’s inclusive transport strategy, published in July, as evidence of the Government’s commitment to taking action to safeguard and promote the rights of all disabled passengers. We do not deny that our strategy is ambitious, but we are determined to deliver it. By 2030 we want disabled people to have the same access to transport as everyone else, and if physical infrastructure remains a barrier, assistance will play a role in guaranteeing those rights. Key commitments to improving accessibility across all modes of transport for those with visible and less visible disabilities include up to £300 million to extend the Access for All programme until at least 2024.

You mentioned that we are looking at disabled people having parity with non-disabled people by 2030, so does that mean that the target in the Equality 2025 strategy is being moved to 2030?

Quite right. It is not the Chair’s responsibility to respond to questions, and I take the opportunity to say the same thing to the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova). We really must work in the third person.

Forgive me, Sir Roger. I will make sure not to do that again.

The hon. Lady is conflating two issues. There is the 2025 aspiration, but the 2030 target is to ensure that we come into line with the UN’s ambition to ensure accessibility across all modes of transport. We mentioned £300 million for Access for All, and we also have £2 million to help bus operators install new audio-visual equipment on buses, and £2 million to enable the installation of more Changing Places toilets in motorway service areas. The strategy also requests that local authorities pause the installation of new “shared-space” schemes.

I am glad the hon. Lady is pleased about that. That will apply specifically to new schemes at the design stage that incorporate a level surface. An accessible transport network is central to the Government’s wider ambition to build a society that works for all, regardless of the nature of a person’s disability. People should have the same access to transport and the same opportunity to travel as everyone else, and this is an important measure to reduce social isolation and create opportunities for people to play a more active role in society. I represented the Department for Transport at the loneliness strategy that was published yesterday, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Tracey Crouch) and the family of Jo Cox, to ensure that transport is seen as a way of ensuring that we tackle isolation.

As the hon. Lady noted, many of our stations—including those in her constituency—are Victorian, and their infrastructure is not fit for today. Those 19th century stations were not built with the needs of 21st century passengers in mind, which has left us with the huge task of opening up the rail network to disabled passengers. Although 70% of journeys are step free, we have continued our commitment to the Access for All programme. The inclusive transport strategy included a commitment to extend our Access for All programme across control period 6 between 2019 and 2024, with an additional £300 million of funding from the public purse. The hon. Lady asked about the £47 million, but that was not cut at all as it has been deferred to that round of funding. Part of that funding will be used to continue work on the stations that were deferred as part of the 2015 Hendy review, including Battersea Park station—I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes that investment.

Those funds will allow design work to restart on all deferred projects from April next year, and once the designs are completed, Network Rail will confirm the construction date for Battersea Park. The project is likely to be difficult to complete, given the nature of the station, but Network Rail has been instructed to continue to work with local stakeholders, including Wandsworth Borough Council. I know that the council has aspirations to improve not just the station but the wider area, going further than the Access for All project.

I am confident that a solution that meets the requirements of all stakeholders can be found. Some of the best Access for All projects have been those where a number of smaller schemes and funding streams have come together to enhance a station greatly. For example, Clapham Junction and Putney both had lifts installed in recent years to make the stations accessible, and other work has been carried out at the same time to reduce congestion. In addition to those stations deferred from the previous round of funding, we will use part of the £300 million fund to make improvements at even more stations. We have asked the industry to nominate stations for new funding by 16 November this year, and I urge all hon. Members to encourage nominations in their constituencies. Nominated stations will be selected based on annual footfall and weighted by the incidence of disability in the area. We will take into account local factors such as proximity to a hospital or the availability of third-party funding for the project, and we will ensure a fair geographical spread of projects across the country.

The hon. Lady will know that neither Queenstown Road nor Wandsworth Town in her constituency have previously been nominated for Access for All funding. Nominations come through the train operating company in partnership with the local authorities, Members of Parliament and, of course, local councillors championing them. I encourage her to liaise with South Western Railway if she wishes these or any other station to be put forward, and ideally to seek a proportion of third-party matched funding that will help to weight the business case. I hope to announce the selected stations by April next year.

I noted that the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) mentioned a station in his constituency. We are not asking for local communities to drive these campaigns. We are asking for train operating companies to recognise the stations that they would wish to prioritise. We have quite a large sum of funding, £300 million, but we have to ensure that it is spread appropriately. This new £300 million of funding builds on the success of the Access for All programme. So far it has installed accessible, step-free routes at over 200 stations, and around 1,500 stations have benefited from smaller-scale access improvements.

We are also pressing the industry to comply with its legal obligations to ensure that work at stations meets current accessibility standards, not only on flagship projects such as Crossrail, the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street and the TransPennine route upgrade, all of which are delivering significant accessibility improvements, but as part of the business as usual work of their renewals programme, for example by making sure that any replacement bridges have lifts or ramps. It is also important that the industry meets its obligations to anyone who needs assistance, whether they have booked ahead of time or not.

Will the Minister explain why it is appropriate to defer the £47 million she talked about when so many disabled people throughout the country are suffering because they do not have fair access to stations? Also, when is the Minister likely to visit Levenshulme, as she has said she will try to do?

I am thankful for the intervention, which allows me to clarify that the £47 million has not been deferred. All the deferred stations in the last spending round have been put into this spending round, which is why we have £300 million to spend. I am grateful once again for an invitation to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency; I will see what I can do, but obviously I cannot accept every invitation, although this one is incredibly attractive.

Getting back to the point that the hon. Member for Battersea raised about how much time people have to leave before taking a journey, every passenger should get the best possible help to use the trains, whether booked ahead of time or not, particularly at stations that do not have fully accessible facilities. Each operator is required to have a disabled people’s protection policy in place as part of its licence to operate services. The policy sets out the services that disabled passengers can expect and what to do if things go wrong, and commits the operator to meeting its legal obligations by making reasonable adjustments to their services to allow disabled people to use them, for example by providing an accessible taxi, free of charge, to anyone unable to access a particular station. Through the inclusive transport strategy, we are also looking at how we can improve Passenger Assist to make it more flexible and responsive to real-time changes.

I hope I have demonstrated that this Government are committed to improving access at stations for disabled passengers, through both specific projects such as Access for All and improvements delivered as part of our wider commitment to improving the rail network. I thank the hon. Member for Battersea and all colleagues for the contributions they have made; I appreciate the frustration of passengers who do not have access to stations in her constituency, but I hope the hon. Lady has been reassured that the Government remain committed to investment that will improve rail services. We want people to continue to benefit from the record levels of funding, including the Access for All investment that will benefit passengers at Battersea station. I am beginning to understand her particular experience of disability and accessibility, and I am more than available to meet her to discuss any issues relating to hidden disabilities that we need to cover through the inclusive transport strategy.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.