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Hedge End Train Station: Accessibility

Volume 682: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020

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

I rise to raise with the Government an issue that has been a long-standing concern of my constituents living in Hedge End, Botley, West End and Fair Oak, and that is the lack of accessibility at Hedge End train station in my constituency. It is good to see present in the Chamber my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). I know that they have constituents who use the railway station.

Before I go into detail about the particular circumstances concerning Hedge End, I wish to give the Minister some context in respect of why I have called for action and for this debate in particular. Over the past 20 years, the population of Eastleigh borough has grown by 15%, which is almost double the national average rate. We have also seen significant increases in house building, particularly in Hedge End, which sadly has not been matched with the new infrastructure needed to serve the growing population. The situation has been exacerbated by the failure of the local council, which has been unable or unwilling to put in place a suitable local plan to guide and shape development in a sustainable way.

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 is 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, near to the southern parish’s excellent Conservative club.

Looking ahead, 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. In simple terms, we have had the housing growth and population increases, and we will continue to have more housing growth, but we have not got the infrastructure that should go hand in hand with this level of past, present and planned development.

Members may have been to my constituency to campaign in one or both of the by-elections that have taken place there in the past 25 years—although it is safe to say, I hope, that there will be no further by-elections in my constituency—and if they did, they would have arrived at either Southampton Airport Parkway or Eastleigh town centre. At the next election, during my hopefully successful re-election campaign, I want to give colleagues the opportunity to see Hedge End town’s vibrant offer after coming into a Hedge End train station with greater accessible transport.

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 the excellent local schools, such as Wildern School and Berrywood, to name but two. This explains why Hedge End station is well used, with more than 522,000 entries and exits in the past year alone. That is up from 506,000 in 2017. However, for some people in my constituency entering the station is not as easy as exiting the station and that is what I hope the Minister will be able to assist with today.

Parents with disabled children, disabled adults and parents with pushchairs or prams are unable to use Hedge End station to travel because there are no lifts, wheelchair or pushchair-accessible facilities at the station. Travellers or commuters with mobility issues are left in the unacceptable situation of being able to take the train to London from Hedge End, but they are forced to alight at Southampton Airport, Eastleigh, Fareham or other stations towards Portsmouth for their return journey.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate. Does he agree that all too often it is our disabled constituents who get the roughest deal when it comes to public transport, particularly on our rail network, and that we simply have to do better to make sure they have the same access to get around the country as we do?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Many constituents have written to me to tell me how they have disabled children or that they have disabilities themselves, and that at the moment they cannot travel into London. The only way, which I will come on to later, they can get to London and have that mobility is by taking a journey in a car or by paying for a cab to go down the M27 and into Eastleigh town centre or Southampton. She is completely correct. Members across the House have stations where this is a problem and we need to get better at providing that solution for people with disabilities, so they can travel as well as those who are able-bodied. That is why I say to the Minister that the situation at Hedge End surely cannot be allowed to continue.

Southampton Airport and Eastleigh, which are the closest stations to Hedge End, are still over five miles away by car or taxi, which naturally come with additional costs and inconvenience. The lack of access to the station means that people from the southern half of my constituency are forced to travel to Southampton Airport Parkway, which has an annual usage of 1.7 million passengers, or Eastleigh, which has an annual usage of 1.6 million passengers, by driving through the towns of Fair Oak, Horton Heath or Bishopstoke, or down the M27. That creates another problem. Our towns and villages, such as Eastleigh, Bishopstoke and Fair Oak, are struggling with a lack of investment in road infra- structure caused by the overdevelopment of housing. This means that the roads around Eastleigh and Southampton Airport station are often blocked in rush hour and inaccessible, too. 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.

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. 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.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech about a very important topic, which is equally important to the constituencies that neighbour his own. As he said, it is a very fast-growing station—with, I think, 138% growth since 2000—so it is important to my constituents. Has he considered that it is possible to get on the Fareham-bound platform along a footpath, which at the moment is very muddy? Has he looked at whether we can develop that side of the station to enable people with disabilities to access Fareham-bound trains?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. She knows the station as well as I do, and her constituents use it. There are options to improve the footbridge from that side of the train station. I share her sentiments and her aspiration, and think that that is an adequate step for the short term, but with the number of people who will use the station in the longer term with the increase in population from those moving into the constituency, we need to go further. That is why I secured the debate tonight and I thank her for her intervention.

With the installation of either a lift or wheelchair-accessible facilities at Hedge End station, we can achieve the sort of results that are at the heart of the Government’s agenda. We can give disabled people the opportunity to easily travel for work and enjoyment, we can make life better for families and parents with young children, we can improve our environment by getting more cars off the road, and we can make sustainable travel alternatives a sensible, viable option for my constituents and the wider community.

With all those benefits, I hope the Minister will reflect on the strong case for upgrading the facilities at Hedge End station and make the station a priority for future funding allocations. I know that he will acknowledge that I have written to him and lobbied him before, in the Tea Room and other locations, and I will continue to lobby him to get the funding we need. However, if he would like to make our life in Eastleigh just a little bit easier, I look forward to him writing to me, or he could just give me and my constituents the good news that he is allocating the funding right now.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on giving colleagues across the House the opportunity to discuss the important subject of accessibility to the railway network, in particular in his constituency at Hedge End station. I thank him for the very positive engagement that we have had on this matter. I promise him that his polite and persistent manner will achieve a lot for his constituents in this place. The way in which he goes about his business is completely professional and does him great credit.

I recognise how important it is for my hon. Friend’s constituents to have access to the railway to get to and from work, to see family and friends, and to go about their lives. I know from the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) how important it is for their constituents, too. I should also acknowledge my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) and for High Peak (Robert Largan) who care passionately about accessibility on the railway and are here to listen to the debate, and my opposite number, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who assiduously attends these debates and who I know is passionate about this area too.

Delivering a transport system that is truly accessible to all is of great importance to the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh has seen the Department for Transport’s inclusive transport strategy, published in 2018, and recognises it 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. If physical infrastructure remains a barrier, assistance will play a role in guaranteeing those rights.

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, they should have the same access to transport and the same opportunity to travel as everyone else, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North said. This is an important measure for reducing social isolation and creating opportunities for people to play a more active role in society. We know, for example, that disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. The simple ability to travel from A to B should not be a barrier to someone becoming employed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh knows, many of our stations are Victorian and their infrastructure is not fit for today. The 19th-century stations were not built with the needs of 21st-century passengers in mind, which has left us with a huge task of opening up the rail network to disabled passengers. Although 75% of journeys are through step-free stations, only about a fifth of stations, 20%, have proper step-free access into the station and to and between each platform.

Clearly, there is a lot more to be done. Accessible stations make a huge difference to people’s journey experience, not only for those with reduced mobility but for those carrying heavy luggage, those pushing pushchairs with children and a whole host of other people. That is why we have continued the Access for All programme. The inclusive transport strategy included a commitment to extend the programme across control period 6 in rail, between 2019 and 2024—we love to work in five-year periods—with an additional £300 million of funding from the public purse. My hon. Friend might also be aware that in March the Chancellor included an extra £50 million in the Budget for that programme.

As Chair of the Select Committee on Women and Equalities, I can tell the Minister that the issue of disabled people and transport is a subject dear to the Committee’s heart. Can he give us some indication of the sums that the Chancellor has extended to the network to improve accessibility at stations and how many that might help?

I will come on to that later in my speech and, like my right hon. Friend, I am very passionate about this area. I have done a huge amount, I would like to think, to help people with learning disabilities, and I was the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on learning disability in this place before I was fortunate enough to become a Minister.

I know we need to do a great deal more, but I guess I can say to my right hon. Friend that this new funding builds on the previous success. It was launched as a 10-year programme in 2006. So far, it has installed accessible step-free routes at more than 200 stations, and some 1,500 stations have benefited from smaller-scale access improvements.

The new funding allows design work to restart on all the projects deferred by the 2016 Hendy review of Network Rail delivery and allows even more stations to be included in the programme. We asked the industry to nominate stations for the new funding, and we received more than 300 nominations, most of which came through the train operating companies, often in partnership with local authorities, Members of Parliament or local councillors who were championing them.

Nominated stations were then selected based on criteria that included—this is quite an important inclusion—annual footfall and the incidence of disability in the area. We also took into account other local factors, such as proximity to a hospital or the availability of third-party funding for the project and, indeed, ensured a fair geographic spread of the projects across the country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh will know, Hedge End was nominated for Access for All funding, but was not successful this time round. That was largely because of its low footfall compared with other stations nominated by South Western Railway. I understand his disappointment that Hedge End was not selected. All inaccessible stations deserve funding, but as he would understand, we receive many more nominations for the programme than we are able to support at this time. Stations are selected for funding through a prioritisation and assessment process. It was difficult to justify Hedge End’s inclusion at this time ahead of other busier stations that had a higher priority for the reasons I have just given and as suggested by the industry.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister, and I am grateful for his comments, but will he just clarify something for me and my constituents? He says that Hedge End was unsuccessful in bidding for funding last time, which I completely accept—his communication with me was perfectly courteous on that—but will future funding bids take into account the historic increase in footfall in stations, which Hedge End will have over the next five years, but also has had over the past five years?

Yes. Footfall is a very important factor in the criteria that we take into account. Should further funding become available, or if there are significant underspends elsewhere in the existing delivery programme, I will look to select further stations. I cannot guarantee that that will happen, and I cannot yet guarantee that Hedge End will be among them, because unfortunately it is far from unique, but it will be given due consideration along with the other unsuccessful stations, and I can tell my hon. Friend that I will bear in mind this debate at that time, along with all the very valid arguments he has made this evening.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to improving access across the rail network, and we will seek further opportunities and funding to make further improvements. We are also pressing the industry to comply with its legal obligations to ensure that work at stations meets current accessibility standards and for the Office of Rail and Road to enforce the standards effectively. That applies not only to the flagship projects, such as Crossrail or the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street—all of which are delivering significant accessibility improvements—but also as part of the business-as-usual work of the renewals programme, such as 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 or not they have booked ahead of time. Every passenger should get the best possible help to use the trains, particularly at stations that do not have accessibility features. Each operator is required to have an accessible travel 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. It commits the operator to meeting its legal obligations by making reasonable adjustments to its 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.

The Office of Rail and Road recently consulted on revised accessible travel policy guidance, which included new proposals that will strengthen the provisions put in place to ensure that disabled people can use the rail network. I have encouraged the ORR to take enforcement action against train and station operators who are found not to be meeting their accessibility obligations.

Every disabled passenger should be confident that the assistance they have booked will be provided. The Department has worked with the Rail Delivery Group to create the new passenger assistance application, which will make it easier for disabled passengers to book assistance. We encourage the ORR to be as ambitious as possible with regard to the proposals to reduce the minimum notice period for booking assistance, and to set the shortest minimum period that operational constraints allow, based on its knowledge of and input of its routes.

I know that there is more we can do to make the rail network more accessible. Therefore, we will be introducing a new set of accessibility requirements. Those include the introduction and delivery of enhanced disability awareness training to all train operating company staff, regardless of their role or seniority, and mandating all train operators running new franchises, or these new emergency recovery measures agreements, to write annually to the Secretary of State for Transport and me, as the transport accessibility Minister, outlining all activity that has been conducted to improve accessibility for rail passengers, including what they have done beyond the obligations in their franchise agreements and future rail contracts. We have actively supported the establishment by the industry of an independent rail ombudsman with powers to deal with unresolved passenger complaints. However, as I say, there is a lot more to be done in this area, and not all of it involves more cash.

I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the 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 my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh and all colleagues for their contributions to the debate. I appreciate the frustration of passengers who do not have access to stations in their area, but I hope that my hon. Friend has been reassured that the Government remain committed to investment that will provide and improve services in this area. We want all people to continue to benefit from the record levels of funding, including Access for All investment, that we are putting into the rail network at this point in time, and I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for raising this issue in the manner in which he did.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.