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Luton Train Station Redevelopment

Volume 723: debated on Monday 28 November 2022

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

I am pleased to have secured this debate about an issue that is very important to the people of Luton. I am incredibly proud of my town. Luton is an aspirational town, packed to the brim with vibrant cultures and caring communities. It is called a town but is in fact the size of a city; the latest census data shows a population of 225,000 in 2021—an increase of about 11% over the past 10 years.

However, all the great things that make Luton a brilliant place are undermined by the station and rail entrance to our town centre. Whether someone lives in Luton, works in Luton, visits our town or simply travels through, there is a chance they will have to experience Luton train station. Rather than simply putting to the Minister my personal feelings about Luton station—I have put those on the record in the House many times— I asked the good people of Luton on social media for their thoughts. Here are a few snippets:

“The station building itself is dull and decrepit.”

There is a

“Lack of lifts to platforms. Lots of leaks everywhere, platform often gets puddles and it’s easy for travellers to get wet.”

The station

“is completely inaccessible for the disabled, elderly and those carrying luggage”

and a

“Nightmare for families with small children and people with mobility issues…You can’t shelter from the rain because one of the platforms has a waterfall…It’s a terrible first impression for visitors to our town arriving by train.”

It is “Not fit for purpose.”

From testimonies of local people and discussions with Thameslink GTR, Network Rail, past Government Ministers and the Department for Transport, it is overwhelmingly clear that redevelopment is needed. We have only seen basic remediations of the station since the 1950s, with the odd licks of paint here and there. I know the station so well; I am a born and bred Lutonian. When I was a kid, we picked my dad up from the station. I have been a commuter for 25-odd years. I saw the removal of the old Red Star parcel depot and the extension of the platforms for 12-car trains. But fundamentally there has been no real change to the station overall.

I am sure that the Minister’s officials have written a good technical brief on Luton station, but I do not want today’s debate to be about whether Luton train station needs investment—it is clear that it does. Instead, I want the debate to provoke action from Government that leads to a redevelopment of Luton train station. This is not just about providing Luton with the station it deserves, but about the modern station it needs to thrive.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that the point about a modern station and the need to thrive applies also to Leagrave station in the north of the town? It is in desperate need of lifts. The Access for All funding bid has the backing of Bedfordshire Rail Access Network, Network Rail, Thameslink GTR, the council, myself and thousands of our constituents. I sincerely hope that all those who signed my Leagrave petition and those who make the 1.8 million journeys a year from that station finally get the station that they deserve.

I thank my hon. Friend for that brilliant intervention. She is a fantastic champion for Luton North and Leagrave station; I am sure the Minister has taken note of the points she made so well.

Figures provided to me show that over 3.5 million passenger journeys were made via Luton station in 2019-20. Despite that, as mentioned by so many local people, poor accessibility is preventing many disabled and elderly people, young families, or those with luggage from travelling by train. At the moment, those with mobility restrictions are unable to access four out of the five platforms—and the one external lift to the ticket office upstairs is regularly out of order.

People unable to access the station are often forced to go out of their way to travel via Luton Airport Parkway station. However, Luton Airport Parkway, at the very southern tip of the town, serves Luton airport, both for travellers and workers, as well as associated businesses. It does not provide access to Luton’s town centre or the bus interchange.

Football fans visiting Luton for away games against the Hatters are also faced with the station’s accessibility issues, as well as what it looks like; the criticisms are similar from Luton Town fans. Just recently I was told that when Luton fans who travel by coach to away games are dropped back at Luton station after the game, some disabled fans cannot then access the platform they need to return home. Instead, their journey can take an additional hour or two, often late at night, as they have to go up to Bedford from platform 5, across, and then back down to Luton Airport Parkway or stations further south. It is either that or they have to pay for a taxi.

These transport issues are unacceptable now, but it is important to note that Luton Town are a football club on the rise. The club reached the championship play-offs semi-final last year and are currently one point from the play-off places. They are in the process of developing the exciting Power Court stadium, which will be closer to the train station and town centre than Kenilworth Road. It will have an increased capacity of initially around 7,500 more, potentially rising to 12,500 more, than Kenilworth Road down the line. Whether Luton Town are in the championship or make it to the Premier League, we will see an increasing number of visitors to the town, which will further demonstrate the accessibility issues.

I know that the Minister, like my mum, is an Arsenal fan. Just as an example, I ask how an Arsenal fan with a disability who follows their club around the country using the rail network would cope with travelling to Luton. I appreciate that Luton has been allocated Access for All funding, which will be used to create an obstacle-free accessible route from the station entrance to the platform, and that is very much welcome, but there are clear concerns about the delay in delivery and the continual dilution of the design quality.

The funding was allocated to Luton eight years ago. Due to deferrals, work on the lifts may not start until 2024, when we were led to believe that the work would be completed within the current control period by 2024. As well as these delays, there are concerns about the design of the lifts and the associated footbridge. Luton Borough Council has worked incredibly hard with stakeholders to identify preferred options. There are rumours that the roof may be removed from the footbridge connected to the lifts, seemingly without consultation with the council, exposing passengers to the elements. We know that installing lifts now will be more cost-effective over the long term, and the absence of a covered footbridge seems at odds with the design of other stations of similar size to Luton. Will the Minister outline when we can expect work on the Access for All-funded lifts to begin? When can we expect to see the finalised agreed upon design of the lifts and footbridge? I will be very disappointed if a minimal viable product of a footbridge, with no covers, was forced on Luton station to the detriment of local travellers.

That leads to another key point that people in Luton repeatedly raise with me. Shiny new lifts on a decrepit station do not address the overall problem that the station is not fit for purpose. I have some photos here, which I will happily ensure that the Minister leaves the Chamber with, so that he can see for himself. Passengers are not getting the value for money they deserve, whether it is access to platforms or avoiding the long-standing water feature, more commonly known as the rain that pours down from the leaky roof on platform 3. What impression does that give of our town? A train station is a gateway to a town and is key to creating the perception of a welcoming community. People travel to Luton town centre for a whole host of reasons—to work, for shopping, for business, to deliver public services, to study at the university and to enjoy our arts and culture. The station is also part of the walk-through from High Town down to the town centre—the clue is in the name —and it is used by people walking through at all times of day and night. All of these people experience a station that lets down our town.

Luton Borough Council has recognised the importance of increasing investment in the urban areas surrounding the station. Both the Bute Street car park mixed-use development and the Power Court development for Luton Town football club are within a stone’s throw of the thoroughly outdated Luton station. To maximise the potential of these developments and the regeneration of our town, we need a full redevelopment of the train station. As someone who says he is passionate about rail—I am, too—I am sure that the Minister agrees that rail can be a catalyst to regenerate areas. For every £1 that is spent on rail, £2.50 is generated for the wider economy.

A 21st-century station fit for the town we are, not the town we once were, could create huge economic and social opportunities for Luton. Improving the station as a gateway to our town centre would increase the attractiveness of Luton for residents and visitors, which is key to creating jobs, attracting investment and encouraging businesses to come to Luton. Improving Luton’s rail offer also aligns with the UK’s wider aim of reaching net zero. A positive rail passenger experience is vital to encouraging the modal shift from cars to rail. It is clear that the current experience of Luton residents is not encouraging them to make that shift.

I know that the Minister and the Government recognise that the current situation is unacceptable. A full redevelopment of the station is an essential part of our town centre’s revival. Will the Minister outline what discussions he has had with Department for Transport and Treasury officials about a full redevelopment of Luton station? In his recent letter, he offered to have a meeting to discuss Luton station further. I accept his offer and hopefully our teams can liaise to secure a meeting. I also invite him to Luton to see it for himself in all its glory—it is 25 minutes on the train from St Pancras. It is important to Luton that it finally gets the train station that it deserves. I look forward to working with the Minister to find a solution that works for our town.

It is a pleasure to respond to my first Adjournment debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) on securing today’s debate on Luton station in her constituency. I know her constituency well—she rumbled me as an Arsenal fan, but it is fair to say that my nearest top-quality football team would have been Luton, as I was brought up in Buckinghamshire. I have family who live near Luton and, I am pleased to say, are big Luton Town supporters. I wish the team well in their bid for premiership promotion.

This is an exciting opportunity for me to talk about the work that we are delivering across the rail network to enhance stations and bring them into the 21st century. As the hon. Member rightly said, stations act as a gateway to towns and cities, and connect people to new opportunities for work, education and employment. We share her belief that stations must therefore be inclusive, accessible and fit for purpose.

I know that Luton has ambitions for its station to be a gateway to the town, not only to provide a positive first impression for visitors, but to enhance the ambience in and around the station for its residents and rail users. It will also provide an additional reason for potential future investors and businesses to choose Luton. On that basis, I would be happy to come and see the hon. Members for Luton South and for Luton North (Sarah Owen) in their Luton constituencies to see it for myself. As the hon. Member for Luton South said, it is only 25 minutes from London, but it might be even closer if I go and see my mum at the same time.

I assure the hon. Member that Luton is being actively considered in our plans for growth. The Government have demonstrated our commitment to invest in the town. We are delivering accessibility improvements at Luton station, as well as enhancements to bus services across the town and beyond. We are also improving road access to London Luton airport and investing in regenerating Luton’s town centre. I will explain further details of our plans for growth in Luton.

On the Access for All programme, our first priority at Luton station is accessibility. No passenger should be inhibited from accessing the opportunities presented by rail travel, whether as a result of a disability or struggling to carry pushchairs or luggage up the station steps. That is where the Access for All programme comes in.

With £383 million available across England and Wales until 2024, Luton station, as the hon. Member pointed out, is set to receive Access for All funding to provide accessible routes to all four of the station’s currently inaccessible platforms. To her question, the project is currently in design stage and is due to complete by 2024. I understand that there was a delay due to a lack of planning consent, but if the council agrees and we start next year, we should be able to complete by 2024. I assure her that I will write to her about the specific points that she raised. Our Access for All programme will have delivered more than 300 step-free accessible routes, and smaller accessibility improvements, at more than 1,500 stations by 2024.

We will also continue to invest more widely in Luton town centre. In 2021, Luton Borough Council received £20 million from round 1 of the levelling-up fund to fund the first step in redeveloping the area around Luton station and the entrance to the town centre. This project will set a new standard for redevelopment and provide confidence to the private sector to unlock other key sites that are ripe for development. This will build on the improvements already in place, such as the busway and interchange adjacent to the station and the improved access to the town centre. I know these public realm improvements are all part of the wider masterplan ambition for Luton to create a hub for business and employment, leisure and entertainment.

Through the local growth fund, we have invested £4 million for the development of the Hat district in the town centre, close to the station, providing over 130 new jobs and more than 1,700 new opportunities for skills-based learning; £1.2 million to improve road capacity around Luton airport, which will also enable the development of 800 new homes and the creation of 750 new jobs; and £800,000 towards new bus stops and access points on the Dunstable to Luton busway.

We are also providing—if the hon. Lady does not mind my giving out the shopping list—over £19 million as part of Luton’s bus service improvement plan to deliver enhanced bus services across the town. I hope that makes it clear that we are making massive investments across Luton’s transport network. In addition, my Department is providing the council with around £10 million for the maintenance and small improvements of Luton’s highways for the period 2022 to 2025.

Turning back to rail specifically, I would now like to talk about some of the national programmes that my Department is championing, and that Luton and the surrounding communities could directly benefit from. However, before I do that, I should recognise the plea of the hon. Member for Luton North about Leagrave station. I do not know whether it will be possible to fit in a visit at the same time, but I will look into that application, and see where it currently sits and where we go from there. I know what it is like to be disappointed with applications, because I have had many myself.

More centrally, where communities are not yet served by rail, we are building new stations accordingly. The new stations fund has already delivered eight new stations across England and Wales—most recently, Bow Street station in 2021, with five new stations due to open in 2023 at Portway Parkway, Reading Green Park, Thanet Parkway, Marsh Barton and White Rose.

We continue to make good progress on our commitments in the 2021 plan for rail, which set out how the railway must specifically evolve to meet the needs of its customers. As part of this plan, we are committed to a comprehensive accessibility audit of rail network facilities. Once the audit is completed, publicly available data will enable passengers to better plan their journeys and will enable us in Government to make better investment decisions to bring the entire rail network into the 21st century. We are already 90% of the way to completing this audit of Great British mainline stations, ahead of schedule, and we expect the remainder to be completed by spring 2023. I very much hope that the hon. Members for Luton South and for Luton North will work—I know they will—with local authorities and the rail industry to leverage these opportunities for investment in rail in and around Luton.

The autumn statement recommitted to transformative growth plans for our railways. We are investing significant amounts in rail enhancements across Great Britain to grow and level up the economy and to spread prosperity and opportunity. We will review the rail network enhancements portfolio, and announce the update once this work is complete.

Finally, I am aware of the strong aspirations of the hon. Members for Luton South and for Luton North for a full redevelopment of Luton station. Their advocacy on behalf of their constituents is admirable and genuinely felt and meant. I was concerned to hear that aspirations for full redevelopment may have previously delayed investment in accessibility at the station. I pledge to work with them to work out how we can ensure delivery of the accessibility points while also keeping in mind their aspirations for wider regeneration.

Luton now has an opportunity to become fully accessible in the short to medium term, with benefits to a wide range of users. I hope the hon. Member for Luton South will support those works. In relation to her aspirations for a wider regeneration of the station, I urge her to work with local authorities, the local enterprise partnership and the rail industry to develop a business case for such works, including identifying funding sources for their delivery. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for securing this debate on the redevelopment at Luton station, and I look forward to working with both hon. Members to see how that can be delivered.

House adjourned.