West Midlands: Transport

– in Westminster Hall am 5:15 pm ar 8 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department 5:15, 8 Mai 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Government funding for transport in the West Midlands.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I am pleased to have secured a debate on this topic and I thank the House for allowing this time. I am grateful to all those who are present in the Chamber and ready to speak. I will start by explaining to anybody watching that I will confine my comments to Redditch, my constituency, and its connections to the major conurbation of Birmingham. It is a peculiarity of Parliament that the debate title must focus on the west midlands, not simply my constituency, but of course that allows other colleagues with wider geographical reaches to speak as well.

Every time I am out and about in Redditch and the villages of Inkberrow, Cookhill, the Lenches, Hanbury and Abbots Morton, it is inevitable that transport in all its forms is raised with me. That is because transport is key to our local economy, to levelling up, and to people’s opportunity literally to get on their bikes and better themselves—something that we Conservatives believe in strongly, in line with our best traditions and values. That is why one of the key pledges I made to my constituents when I was elected for the first time in 2017 was to improve local transport. As an MP who represents rural, urban and suburban residents, I know that there is a range of transport needs, which vary widely depending on where people live.

People are often bemused when I explain that the constituency of Redditch county—that is its name, even though there is no county of Redditch, before everybody writes in—and areas in the new constituency, which will be up for election after the next boundary changes, include villages and rural and farming areas. In particular, the new constituency for which I will be the candidate at the next general election includes Wychbold, Dodderhill, Stoke Prior, Harvington and Norton. Obviously, their connections to Droitwich, Bromsgrove and Evesham are also important.

That said, we are close to Birmingham. It is the major economic centre. It is vital for people’s work, study and leisure opportunities. Before securing the debate, I asked my constituents to give me their views on the transport network in Redditch. I asked them about roads, rail, bus and traffic issues around the constituency, and I will broadly structure my remarks around the answers that they gave. If people watching have missed sending me their thoughts, they can still do so, and I will post a link on my website and my Facebook page.

I will turn first to motorists. After all, Redditch is a new town that was constructed with the car at its heart. In fact, Redditch is the proud owner of England’s only cloverleaf roundabout. Everybody is welcome to come to Redditch and experience driving round the cloverleaf roundabout and many others. Dual carriageways around the town allow for quick and easy access everywhere. Equally, my rural constituents living in more remote areas rely on cars to get around, especially where other transport options might be limited. The responses to my survey reflected the central part that cars play in my constituents’ lives. Road quality was an issue that was highlighted, with 52% of respondents expressing their dissatisfaction with the quality of roads in their area.

The roads in Redditch, under the two-tier system of government that we have in our area, are managed by Worcestershire County Council, not Redditch Borough Council, which again can cause confusion. As a local MP, I know how irritating and dangerous potholes and other obstacles, such as flooding and debris, can be on the roads, and the damage they can do to a vehicle.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Was meeting net zero targets part of her questionnaire? If it was, if we have to meet net zero targets, we have to have the infrastructure in place. I think the hon. Lady is saying that if that infrastructure is not in place, we cannot meet our net zero targets. That will also mean that we cannot deliver on the buses she would like to have for the rural constituency she represents.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

The hon. Gentleman has raised a very important issue. That was not specifically included in my survey this time around, but net zero is, of course, something we must aspire to achieve; in fact, we have legislated for it, and we are committed to it. However, at the same time, we have to accept that a reality of people’s lives is that they need cars to drive around in, whether they are electric or petrol and diesel. We must make sure, therefore, that the infrastructure is there, whether to support the transition or the roads, which will be important, whether the cars and buses are electric or fossil fuel vehicles.

I know that the Government recognise the issue with road surfaces. We all know that some of the funding for High Speed 2 has been reallocated to improve roads locally. In Worcestershire, we have received more than £4 million—£4,000,766, to be precise—to repair and resurface roads over the next two years, which comes from the £139 million allocated to Worcestershire County Council as part of the Government’s long-term plan to improve local roads. When he sums up, I would like the Minister to advise me how quickly that can be spent on our roads in Redditch, in our borough, and in Wychavon, which I represent, and how much of that county council funding can be allocated to Redditch Borough Council, so that I can ensure the council is hitting those targets and spending it in the right places.

While I am talking about roads, I would urge anyone who spots a hazard on their road or on a road they are driving on to raise it with the county council directly. It has a good reporting system, and I know that it does get crews out to fix the roads. If anyone is struggling with that service, they should contact me, and I will raise it on their behalf. The council can and do respond to road surface issues and potholes when they are raised. It has a website for that.

Moving on, another 43% of people responded that traffic was an issue in their area. Whether it is roadworks or school pick-up times, there are a number of reasons why we have traffic around the area. I know that the road surface funding I outlined previously can help with the speed of roads, as drivers will not have to slow down to avoid potholes, but I also know that traffic can build up at pinch points and pressure points, such as on the school run, which is something I experienced many times as a parent. We often see traffic building up around school gates, which can be dangerous for the parents and children and for the people who live around those areas. That is why I work hard with all local partners, in particular in the Brockhill estate near Holyoakes Field First School, on the challenges for people getting in and out of their estate. I have had some very constructive discussions with the developers and with the school itself, and I stand ready to help any other school that experiences those problems.

Speeding drivers are not only a nuisance, but dangerous. They also create noise. I know that the Minister’s Department is looking at noise cameras. Could he update me on whether it is rolling those out, and whether we will see them in use in Worcestershire? In the Headless Cross and Oakenshaw area in particular, noise is a real menace—I am happy to brief the Minister in more detail on that.

With the current cost of living challenges people are facing, it is important that we support motorists and remove prohibitive costs associated with driving. I support what the Government are doing by maintaining fuel duty at the current levels for a further 12 months, extending the temporary 5p fuel duty cut and cancelling the planned inflation-linked increase for next year. I am contacted by constituents who make the point that running a vehicle is a big portion of their family’s budget, so I know that people will welcome these measures and that these savings do matter.

The other issue that has been the source of real debate and challenge is the 20 mph speed limits in England. I welcome the Government’s pragmatic, proportionate approach to prevent their blanket use in areas where it is not appropriate, and to amend the guidance on low traffic neighbourhoods. What a stark contrast with Labour-run Wales, where there is a blanket 20 mph speed limit, which is having a massive impact on the Welsh economy, to the detriment of local people. Of course, we also see anti-driver and anti-car policies all over Labour-run London, where Sadiq Khan is punishing and penalising hard-working people for using their cars.

Of course, while Labour insists on those top-down, anti-motorist policies, we Conservatives know that cars are a unique means for freedom for people to fulfil their potential. We must tackle issues of poor driving and speeding. I welcome all the work my newly re-elected police and crime commissioner John Campion is doing. I have been helping him, in Astwood Bank in particular, to tackle dangerous speeding and I will renew my work with him now that he has been re-elected.

Photo of Tahir Ali Tahir Ali Llafur, Birmingham, Hall Green

I thank the hon. Member for giving way. Does she agree with me that nitrogen dioxide levels adversely affect people’s health, especially that of children? Does she not agree that air quality needs to be fixed, but, rather than taking responsibility, the Government have pushed that on to local authorities? If they are serious when they talk about anti-motorist policies, is the overabundance of motorists using cars exponentially, with the detrimental effect on health and especially that of children, something that the Government are proud of?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I want to keep my remarks to my local area of Redditch and Birmingham. I was highlighting the shocking record of Labour-run London and Wales. I stand by those comments: they are anti-driver, anti-car and anti-growth.

While many people drive to and from work, a large number of respondents to my survey highlighted the challenges faced by those who walk, cycle or use a wheelchair to get around Redditch. People highlighted the need to increase the amount of cycling and walking space and the number of crossings and to reduce the amount of time it takes to walk across the town more generally. The accessibility of footpaths was raised by those in wheelchairs and mobility scooters, who often have difficulty with high kerbs. I discuss such issues with the local borough and county councils on a regular basis. Will the Minister advise me what more I can do to make sure those issues are addressed on a practical level across our towns so we can help people who walk or cycle to work to get there faster and safer?

Bus services are key to the pledge I made to my constituents at the last election. People around Redditch and the villages rely on bus services to connect the rural areas to the surrounding towns. Covid presented an existential challenge to local bus services, with people obviously using buses less frequently. That means that certain routes have become unviable and have to be extensively supported by central Government funding.

Unfortunately, only 11% of those who took part in my survey said that local bus services were good. I caveat that, because it is not a scientifically representative sample of the whole town. Nevertheless, I know there are challenges in running bus services. Indeed, the Government have recently stepped in to award £3.4 million to support bus services in Worcestershire, bringing the total received since 2022 to more than £6 million. Additionally, the Government put in place the cap of £2 on bus fares, which has undoubtedly improved usage and provided much needed support for people who rely on buses, especially when families see their budgets squeezed.

In addition to the challenges, we have seen some success stories. Thanks to the hard work of the Conservative-run county council and backing from the Government, the No. 51 and No. 52 routes that serve Redditch are among the most commercially successful in the entire UK. I will, however, continue to work hard with councillors and Ministers to see what more we can do to support our bus network and to ensure it is reliable and delivers for residents. I appreciate the latest thinking from the Minister about what more he can do to support buses in areas such as Redditch as we move beyond covid.

I will make the point that anyone who would like to see better bus services—better funded, nationalised or subject to any of the other ideas we hear talked about—needs to explain how they would be funded. To my knowledge, only one bus route in Redditch makes a profit and that has been the case for many years because people are using buses less and less. Services must therefore be subsidised by the taxpayer. Anyone who advocates for buses being subsidised and brought under state ownership needs to explain how they will take funds earmarked for other vital services to deliver that for residents.

I mentioned at the start of my speech how, because of Redditch’s fortunate position so close to Birmingham, it is essential we have a reliable connection so that my constituents can choose to work in or visit the city with relative ease while living in the town. Before covid, we had three trains per hour to Birmingham and for some strange reason that I am not clear on, we now have only two. We must return to the previous situation immediately; it is past time for that. The future of the train station is being discussed by the county council and the midlands rail hub and I will continue my discussions with all the relevant partners in this space. It is essential that any plans are aligned with the overall vision to level up and regenerate Redditch.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Ceidwadwyr, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. On that specific point about trains, railway stations and the midlands hub, she will know that the former Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, had a vision for transport that involved funding for train stations, including Aldridge train station, and restoring train services for the first time in about 60 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that funding long-term transport objectives and projects such as the midlands rail hub and Aldridge train station remains imperative? It is incumbent on the new Mayor of the West Midlands to deliver these projects on time and on budget, and to publicly announce that he will back them.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point, because the issues she has highlighted in her constituency were the fruits of a healthy collaboration between ourselves as local MPs across the west midlands and the outgoing Mayor, Andy Street, to whom we pay tribute. We also welcome to his position the new Labour Mayor, Richard Parker. I would add to my right hon. Friend’s plea that we can all work constructively together, especially on transport projects that cover a huge area. It is vital we have that collaboration for the benefit of all our residents.

Photo of Tahir Ali Tahir Ali Llafur, Birmingham, Hall Green

On that point, will the hon. Lady give way?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

No, I am afraid I need to wind up. Despite the many challenges we face with local transport, I am pleased that the Government understand the inseparability of good transport networks and levelling up. Whether it is walking, cycling, wheeling, or using a car, train or bus, we must continue to work to improve transport locally so that we can deliver on our promise to level up towns like Redditch and the villages. I will continue working with my constituents and all the stakeholders so that we see improvements.

Finally, let me ask the Minister a few questions. What more can he do with his colleagues in Government to support local councils in tackling potholes and other hazards on our roads? Will he outline the steps the Government are taking to support motorists other than what I have already said, particularly in a time with a high cost of living? What steps is he taking with his colleagues to support bus services, so that we can ensure more routes are viable and sustainable, and move away from Government subsidies, which are ultimately only a short-term option? What steps is he taking to make active transport more of an option in towns such as Redditch, including for people with disabilities? I thank everybody for listening to my speech, I look forward to colleagues’ contributions, and I thank the Minister in advance of his concluding remarks.

Photo of Gordon Henderson Gordon Henderson Ceidwadwyr, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Given the earlier Divisions, I expect that this debate will finish no later than 6.17 pm. I expect to call the Opposition spokesman at 5.54 pm. It does not take a lot of working out to realise that you do not have much time to talk. I remind hon. Members to bob—I can see you are bobbing anyway—if they want to speak.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government) 5:33, 8 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Henderson. I also congratulate Rachel Maclean on securing this important debate. I know I only have a short time in which to speak.

North Shropshire is in the far-flung north-western corner of the west midlands. At the moment, it is a place where people really need a car to move around. I want to focus my remarks on public transport, because it is worth noting that moving around by car is becoming increasingly expensive and very difficult for people living in deprived, very rural areas.

In 2023, the all-party parliamentary group on rural business and the rural powerhouse found that rural households spend about £800 a year more on fuel than people who live in more urban areas. The average distance to their supermarket is much further, and things like insurance are going up. Young people in particular are struggling with car ownership, and currently do not have a viable public transport system to turn to instead. It is absolutely crucial to a healthy rural economy that people can move around. Mobility of labour is a really important supply-side issue, and if people cannot move around from their town or village to have a range of places where they can work or study, we are really putting in a barrier to a thriving economy. That is one of the most important points I want to make today.

Figures from the House of Commons Library show that between 2015 and 2023, the number of miles someone can travel in Shropshire by bus fell the most in England— by 63%. The real point is that bus services, once they start to decline, become unusable and decline even further.

We all understand the difficulties of funding and public subsidy for bus services, but the reality is that we will have to pump-prime them to make them commercially viable in future. Make them frequent, make them reliable, and people will be able to use them. At the moment, if there is only one bus a day into a destination and one bus a day home, that is not a usable service. If someone misses it, they are stuck—and do not suggest a taxi, because there are none of those in Shropshire either.

This is a real problem for my constituency. I might have mentioned before that we can only get one bus service in Shropshire on a Sunday, and that includes Market Drayton—the third largest population centre in Shropshire, which has no kind of Sunday service, while its Saturday service to Shrewsbury and Staffordshire is also at risk. That is a huge problem for young people: they cannot start a college course or get a job outside Market Drayton unless they make the huge financial investment of a car, which many cannot afford.

Older people struggle, too: they may not be able to drive for a number of reasons; they cannot access hospitals by public transport easily; and they have to rely on friends or pay extortionate amounts for unreliable taxi services to get about. If someone lives in Market Drayton in my constituency and wants to get to a college course in Telford, that will probably not work for them because there is no guarantee that the bus service will still be running next year. We need to provide rural communities with an incentive for young people to stay there. Public transport is one of the most important parts of that.

Lots of other people want to speak, so I will move off buses and on to trains. Last year, I was delighted to hear that Oswestry would be reconnected to Gobowen by a new train line. That project is to be fully funded under the restoring your railway fund but, since it was handed over from the original campaigners to the Department for Transport, we have heard no more. Similarly, we expect access for all at Whitchurch station, which does not have step-free access from the southbound platform at the moment. We were promised that the announcement of the funding would be made by the end of the financial year. We are still waiting, and it is starting to feel as if public transport projects go to the Department for Transport to die. Can the Minister give us an update on when we might find out about the step-free access at Whitchurch station and the timetable for the Oswestry-to-Gobowen line? I also add a plug for reopening the train station at Baschurch, to get into Shrewsbury. That would take a lot of people off the road.

Finally, I cannot emphasise enough how important mobility of labour—getting people around in a sensible way—is to our local economy. We need to have reliable bus services that run at appropriate frequency with initial Government subsidy, so that they become reliable, usable and then commercial, and people in places such as North Shropshire can get about.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Ceidwadwyr, South Staffordshire 5:37, 8 Mai 2024

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean on securing this debate. There is real interest, as can be seen in the fact that so many Members from across the west midlands are present.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister will be assailed with demands and requests, so I thought that before I got straight into those, I would start off with a few thank yous. We have seen some amazing investment in rolling stock and electrification on the Chase line, which has seen an amazing increase in the number of people using it. It serves Cannock, Rugeley and my own station of Landywood. There has been exponential growth in the number of people taking advantage of this service, which supports so many local residents in Great Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay. There are also more frequent services in Codsall and Bilbrook, which saw real growth in the number of passengers before the pandemic and a strong rebound post pandemic. I am deeply appreciative of that, but there is constantly an ever greater need for investment in our rail services.

I would like to put a request on the record. Although there have been improvements in the services stopping at Penkridge station in Staffordshire during the week, we would very much like those to be extended so that we have better services at the weekend as well. That is incredibly important for residents of Penkridge, whether they travel from Penkridge to Stafford or into Birmingham. Again, it would cement Penkridge not only as a great place to live but as a great place to visit and from which to commute to the surrounding areas.

I apologise to the Minister for assailing him with so many requests, but there is also the issue of Stone station; we have spoken about it in the past. There would be a real advantage for so many residents in Stone if direct services went straight to Manchester from there. I appreciate that this debate is about services in the west midlands, but so many communities across Staffordshire look not just towards Birmingham and the west midlands urban conurbation but to commute and travel to other urban centres, such as Manchester. If the Minister is able to encourage his officials, Network Rail and the railway companies to consider this proposal as an option, I will be grateful, because I know that it would greatly benefit the residents of Stone.

I also make an additional plea. We do not have disabled access at Stone station, which means that the ability to access vital rail services is not available to the most vulnerable. Could the Minister ask his officials to come back to me about options for improving disabled access at Stone station?

I appreciate that the Minister does not have responsibility for roads, but can he take a message back to his colleague about the issue of potholes? We are very appreciative of the extra money allocated to Staffordshire, but it is a large rural county with many roads that could do with extra attention and resources. I urge the Minister to make sure that potholes are seen as a priority within the Department. They have a real impact on people’s lives. So many of my constituents are unable to access a rail service without using their car in the first instance. Making sure that our road network is the very best is absolutely essential.

Helen Morgan raised the issue of bus services. Buses are very much the Cinderella of the public transport sector, but they are incredibly vital for many rural communities. I feel that Staffordshire has suffered from the over-generous approach towards subsidising public services to the urban west midlands: the rural counties that surround that region are sometimes forgotten. I encourage the Minister to take the message back to his colleagues that bus services are as vital, if not more vital—we do not have tramways and railway stations are often far away from the many villages across Staffordshire. Buses are essential for us, but there seems to be a disparity in funding between the rural counties and the urban west midlands. I encourage the Government to look at that situation and redress the balance.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health) 5:43, 8 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure, Mr Henderson, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate Rachel Maclean, or Redditch and the villages, on securing this debate on transport in the west midlands.

I will speak today about buses. In the past year, trains have undoubtedly dominated headlines in my region after the bungled scrapping of HS2. Buses might not be as glamorous as trains and might not justify expensive taxpayer-funded trips to Japan for the Transport Secretary, but for many of my constituents buses are the lifeblood of the community. They are indispensable for connecting people to jobs, opportunities, education, public services, and friends and family. They also disproportionately serve the more deprived in our society; half of the poorest fifth of families do not own a car.

As I have argued many times before, poor bus services are one of the key reasons why Birmingham underperforms in productivity when compared to similar-sized cities in Europe. I have received complaints about buses from many of my constituents; whether they are looking for work, meeting with family, or simply want a day or night out in the city, the public transport is not there to connect them.

In my time as the MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston, I have lost count of the times that routes on which my constituents rely have been reduced or axed altogether. I also use buses to get around, so I have first-hand experience of that. The directors of National Express West Midlands and Diamond Bus are probably fed up with my letters, but as we are hearing, it is not just us in Birmingham, Edgbaston. Across the country, thousands of services have been axed since 2010. In the west midlands region, the total length of our bus routes has dropped by over 30% since 2010. Since 2021 alone, when the Government announced their bus revolution, over 2,000 routes have disappeared across England.

I want to wish the outgoing Mayor of the west midlands well in whatever he does next, and I thank him for his support and for working with me. However, I must say that I have been underwhelmed by his record on transport; I am thinking not only of his public spat with the Prime Minister on HS2. While our economy is 24/7, our public transport system in the west midlands simply is not. The people of the west midlands voted for change this week, and with Richard Parker I am confident that they will get it. Everyone should have access to a bus route that takes them where they want to go, and they should not have to limit their life choices based on where they live.

Photo of Tahir Ali Tahir Ali Llafur, Birmingham, Hall Green

For the record, West Midlands Combined Authority’s medium-term finances represent a significant challenge to the authority, as a deficit of £29 million is forecast for this year, rising to £50 million for the year 2027-28. That will not be the responsibility of the incoming Mayor; that clearly sits with the outgoing Mayor and this Government. For the record, does my hon. Friend agree that the deficit proposed for this year, and up to 2027-28, will have nothing to do with the incoming Mayor?

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Clearly, that is something I have expressed already in working with Andy Street when it came to the cuts to a viability assessment taking place in my constituency, which would have a Sprint network, for example. A lot of the finances from central Government and the delays directly impacted what he could deliver in the region and clearly what the next Mayor will be able to.

Richard Parker’s plans are to bring the bus network into public control, allowing us to design routes that people need and making buses more affordable, more reliant, more frequent, greener and better connected. Crucially, he has pledged to work with communities to help design a bus network that works for them. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Richard Parker on his victory last week, and can he say whether he will support him in his plans to take buses back into public control? Can the Minister promise that he will not face the same six-year slog that Andy Burnham had to put up with in Greater Manchester due to the unnecessary barriers imposed by central Government?

Voters have seen what they get under a Conservative-run Government: paying more while getting less—whether that is 14 years and £16 billion wasted on HS2 before scrapping it anyway, or whether it is Avanti West Coast’s executives bragging about free money from the Government while cutting routes and running the worst-performing rail line in the country. Labour’s plan to bring buses back into public control could create and save up to 1,300 vital bus routes and allow 250 million more passenger journeys per year. In the west midlands region, that would amount to nearly 160 bus routes created or saved, and 40 million more passenger journeys. I am delighted that we have a west midlands Mayor who wants to match my constituents’ ambition. I hope that soon enough we will have the opportunity to vote for a Government who back him to do that, too.

Photo of Paulette Hamilton Paulette Hamilton Llafur, Birmingham, Erdington 5:47, 8 Mai 2024

I thank Rachel Maclean for securing this important debate. My constituency is three miles from the city centre of Birmingham, or about a 10-minute train journey. Trains are vital to our communities, but with the threats of closing ticket offices and the difficulties that people face in booking online, some of my constituents tell me that they feel locked out of purchasing tickets. One constituent told me:

“We have fine officers on trains rather than ticket officers. What this results in is a situation where people who unable to buy a ticket at their station—be that due to faults in ticket machines or offices being unstaffed—are being fined rather than being offered the chance to buy a ticket on the train itself. It is clear that a great utility for Birmingham is changing its practices and signalling a disregard for basic human decency.”

That is not a unique story. I am sure that colleagues across the room have heard similar things from their constituents.

If my constituents want to travel to the other side of the constituency, they can expect to wait for two or three buses, sometimes with long delays at bus stops. One of my constituents had to wait an hour and a half for a bus on a match day, and she says that she often has to wait an hour on a normal day. It is not too much to ask that people in Erdington, Kingstanding and Castle Vale and across the UK should be able to travel to work, school or college on a bus and expect to be there on time. However, that is far from the reality. Since Labour was last in government, there has been a 47% decrease in weekly bus services across the west midlands, and a 24% decrease in my constituency.

Public transport is an important investment in local growth for individuals and businesses, but we are not funding it well enough. If it were not for public transport, my constituents could not access their jobs. Nor have we seen the investment we need in active travel. So many people cannot afford to get around my constituency by car.

The west midlands has some of the worst air quality in the country. Some of the most populated areas exceed the UK legal limit for toxic nitrogen dioxide, and 80% of that is caused by road transport. Air pollution contributes to more than 43,000 deaths in the UK every year, and more than 2,000 in the west midlands. It is, of course, worse for our children, who are breathing in toxic air. That is why I am glad that our new West Midlands Mayor has pledged to bring buses back under public ownership, and that Labour has pledged to deliver the biggest overhaul to our railways in a generation.

Photo of Simon Lightwood Simon Lightwood Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:51, 8 Mai 2024

It is an honour to respond on behalf of the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Henderson. I congratulate Rachel Maclean on securing the debate. I thank her for her contribution and for her dedication to such an important topic.

I will touch on some colleagues’ remarks. Helen Morgan is right that effective public transport is critical to a thriving local economy and to the mobility of labour. Sir Gavin Williamson is right that regular and effective train services are really important. Several hon. Members mentioned concerns about the accessibility of our train stations, which is something the Opposition strongly believe in. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill, who spoke about the importance of buses and raised concerns about the significant cuts to bus services in her constituency. I also thank my hon. Friend Mrs Hamilton.

The Conservative record on buses can be summed up as delays, cancellations and cuts. We know how important buses are for accessing work, school and hospitals and for seeing loved ones. Labour knows that high-quality, accessible and reliable transport links are the difference between opportunity and isolation for millions of people. Naturally, our debate today has covered more ground than just buses, but as they are the most used form of public transport in Great Britain—58% of ticketed public transport journeys in 2023 took place on a bus—I hope that colleagues will bear with me while I focus on them.

Any discussion of transport funding in England must acknowledge that since England’s buses were deregulated in the 1980s, countless bus services in regions outside London have collapsed. The statistics are stark. There were 1.5 billion fewer annual bus journeys in 2019 than in 1985, there have been 300 million fewer bus miles per year since 2010, and thousands of viable bus services have been cut since 2010. All of that happened on this Government’s watch.

It is now widely accepted that the current bus funding system is not working, either for passengers or for the many operators trying to deliver services that people can rely on. The Government’s own bus back better strategy openly acknowledged the need for subsidy reform and committed the Government to working towards it, but far too little progress has been made on that objective. Bus back better was launched two Secretaries of State and, by my calculation, seven Transport Ministers ago, back when the hon. Member for Redditch was a Transport Minister. Passengers now rightly expect far more progress than we have seen from this Government.

I must make it clear that I know that significant numbers of operators, local transport authorities and—through enhanced partnerships—local councils are doing their best to buck national trends on bus decline and deliver for local residents. There has been commendable progress across all of those. I have been on numerous visits to local bus depots to see those developments at first hand, but the national picture is undeniably still one of huge inequity in the quality of bus service provision. The passenger watchdog Transport Focus’s 2023 survey “Your Bus Journey” makes that crystal clear. An unavoidable statistic in it is that the west midlands has the third worst overall journey satisfaction rating in the country.

The west midlands, as is often pointed out, has enormous economic potential. It already contributes more than £100 billion in GDP, with the UK’s youngest and most diverse population. But for the west midlands truly to fire on all cylinders, it must be underpinned by a high-quality transport network that connects the population to that economy. Whether it is connecting people to educational opportunities, to jobs or just each other, that transport network is vital. I was in the west midlands only last month, visiting the National Express depot in Smethwick with Labour colleagues, where we launched Labour’s plan for better buses alongside the fantastic then candidate for Mayor of the West Midlands, Richard Parker. I am delighted that he now joins the ranks of Labour’s 11 metro Mayors after last week’s truly seismic local and mayoral elections.

I cannot help recapping that the Mayor of the West Midlands now joins the Mayors of West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, York and North Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, the North East, the West of England, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, London and the East Midlands as one of 11 of the country’s 12 metro Mayors with a decisive swing to Labour—11 metro Mayors who are working in lockstep to improve their local transport areas and united in their readiness to work with a Labour Government, should we be lucky enough to serve, to deliver for their regions.

Richard Parker’s vision for transport in the west midlands is of safer, healthier, greener and more efficient mobility across the region that meets the needs of the growing population of the west midlands. Central to his plans for his flagship policy is bringing buses back to public control. Those revolutionary plans will see the west midlands following in the footsteps of other trailblazing metro areas led by tireless Labour Mayors such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. Manchester’s Bee Network has already started to revolutionise travel in the region, with ridership and reliability climbing thanks to his decision to pursue franchising.

Our Mayors are truly doing trailblazing work. However, Labour knows that access to high-quality bus services should not be restricted to just those living in metro areas. As we announced in Birmingham last month, Labour in government will grant every local transport authority, not just metro Mayors, the power to take back control of their local bus services through franchising. Under our plans to accelerate and streamline the franchising process, we will reform the six-year bureaucratic slog encountered in Greater Manchester, shrinking the franchising process to as little as two years.

Labour’s plan to extend franchising powers beyond metro Mayors is important here because plenty of communities in the west midlands are not within the remit of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. As proud as I am of Richard Parker, who has turned the west midlands red, I am sure that the hon. Member for Redditch is already sick of me banging the drum for him this afternoon when her constituency does not come under his remit. That is why, within Labour’s plan to fix our broken buses, our longer-term plan is to provide everywhere in England with the option to take more control over bus funding. Labour will reform and combine bus funding streams to ensure that they are better utilised.

Photo of Gordon Henderson Gordon Henderson Ceidwadwyr, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Order. Could you restrict your speech to the west midlands and not make it national, please?

Photo of Simon Lightwood Simon Lightwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

Okay. The west midlands transport network is more than just buses, vital as they are. The west midlands metro now severely lags behind tram networks in other cities. Greater Manchester’s trams, which predate the west midlands tram network by only seven years, have 64 miles of track across eight lines, compared with the 14 miles and single track in the west midlands. Richard Parker has pledged to finally open the long-promised metro extension from Wednesbury in Sandwell to Brierley Hill in Dudley, and invest in the much-needed extension to Solihull. Crucially, he will roll out contactless ticketing across all modes of transport throughout the west midlands. That seamless integration, which has worked so successfully for Transport for London and has been pursued by the Bee Network in Manchester, will revolutionise mobility across the region.

The west midlands has a proud and cherished heritage of problem solving and invention. With Richard Parker now at the helm to deliver for residents within the metro area, and a Labour Government delivering for so many other communities in the west midlands, we can harness that heritage to kick-start the regional economic growth that the west midlands so desperately needs. Labour is clear that high-quality transport befitting the UK’s second city region is at the very heart of making that possible.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 6:00, 8 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Henderson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean on securing this important and timely debate. She, like me and everyone in the room, will agree that funding improved transport across all modes and all regions is necessary and important. Today, we have come together to talk about funding for the west midlands; I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate and highlighted the real experiences of the communities that they represent.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Andy Street as the outgoing Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority. I have responsibility within the Department for Transport for work with local government and Mayors, and I particularly enjoyed working with Andy. He is a staunch champion of the region and always has been. He has always been committed to improving transport for local people, and I have really enjoyed working with him on it.

I also look forward to working with Andy’s successor, Richard Parker, to continue this important work. Preet Kaur Gill requested this of me: I congratulate Richard Parker on his result. I will be writing to all the successful Mayors, and indeed to those who lost their position, to congratulate them or commiserate. More importantly, for those who are in post, I will pledge to continue to work across the political divide to make matters better for the communities that they represent.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch on involving her constituents in this entire debate. That is democracy in action. She said on 1 May that she wanted to hear what more the Government are doing to support local transport, and that she wanted to share her constituents’ views with me. She has certainly done that, and it is now my duty to respond to her. On points to which I do not respond, I will write to her so that she can forward my response to her constituents.

On 4 October, the Prime Minister announced the £36 billion plan to improve our country’s transport. Network North was the plan that saw every single penny previously allocated for HS2 in the north and the midlands remain invested in those regions. The resurfacing fund is £8.3 billion of investment in highway maintenance. Many hon. Members have brought up the importance of potholes, and of highway maintenance and repairs. The fund means that all highway authorities in England will receive their biggest funding boost in over a decade, including an additional £5.1 million for the West Midlands Combined Authority and £4.76 million for Worcestershire County Council, to help to deliver an unprecedented transformation in the condition of the region’s highways. Again, that is all made possible through the reallocation of HS2 funding.

Authorities will have been able to make an immediate start on the resurfacing of their roads. That work makes a real difference to communities, as we have heard this afternoon. Under Network North, Worcestershire County Council is receiving over £2.3 million this year, with plans under way to apply surfacing treatments to more than 13 miles of road, including an £842,000 investment in Redditch to treat more than two and a half miles of carriageway. Local authorities in the midlands and the north that are not part of a mayoral combined authority will also receive their share of the brand-new £4.7 billion local transport fund. I am pleased to say that under the scheme, Worcestershire will receive £209 million of additional funding over the next seven years. The LTF, as we call it for short, aims to help to improve connectivity between and within towns and cities, while improving everyday journeys for local people.

The Government recognise that local leaders have the best view of their communities’ needs. That is why we are empowering them with unprecedented local transport budgets to spend on their local priorities, which could include upgrading road junctions, improving pavements, reducing congestion and helping buses to run more reliably. It could also be spent on additional highway maintenance activities, if that is a local priority. Anyone can see the LTF allocations for their local transport authority on the Government’s website.

I should also mention the now well-established city region sustainable transport settlements, which provided more than £1 billion to the West Midlands Combined Authority in the first round of funding, and are set to provide a further £2.6 billion in round 2. I heard mention of a deficit; I say again that there will be an additional £2.6 billion for the West Midlands Combined Authority. The most important thing that my Department can do is, of course, to increase the overall funding amount available to all local authorities, and that is exactly what our Network North plan delivers.

Let me turn to buses, which I recognise, despite the fact that I am the Rail Minister, are the nation’s favourite mode of public transport. More people travel on buses than all other forms of public transport put together. We know that safe and reliable buses are hugely important to our constituents, which is why the Government are providing unprecedented support for bus services, totalling more than £4.5 billion since 2020. For the west midlands specifically, Network North has supported the extension of the popular £2 bus fare cap and allocated £230 million to increase the frequency of bus services. That money can also be spent on new bus stops and park-and-ride upgrades. For Worcestershire specifically, that means more than £2.8 million to deliver its bus service improvement plan. There is also £3.4 million redirected from HS2.

Let us not forget the trains—because, of course, I am the Rail Minister. Network North committed £1.75 billion to deliver the midlands rail hub in full—something that Andy Street campaigned very hard to do. Investment in the midlands rail hub will increase the frequency and capacity of rail services across the midlands, benefiting services for users of more than 50 stations.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Ceidwadwyr, Aldridge-Brownhills

On the midlands rail hub and trains, I welcome the work that the Minister did to support the previous Mayor, Andy Street, in delivering a step forward for Aldridge train station. Will the Minister continue to work with us and the new Mayor to make sure that we not only deliver that train station but look at the open-access route from Wales to Euston with a stop at Aldridge?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am happy to give a commitment not only to continue to champion the midlands rail hub but to include Aldridge station. My right hon. Friend has been an absolute champion on the issue and has made a number of interventions on me in the Chamber in support of it, and I very much hope that the new Mayor will continue that work. My right hon. Friend and Andy Street got it to this stage, and I am sure the new Mayor will take it forward. I will certainly look to talk to him about that and to pass on my right hon. Friend’s interest.

In February, the Secretary of State for Transport announced £123 million to fund and design the first phase of the midlands rail hub, and the resulting improved services are likely to run from the early 2030s. We have the plan in place; we now need to ensure that the new Mayor is on board with it. That work will also include benefits for the cross-city line from Redditch to Birmingham. Network North investment will see the cross-city line return to six trains per hour in total, including three to Redditch. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch has pushed and asked for that, and I can give her that commitment.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

I welcome that, of course. I am delighted to hear that commitment to three trains from Redditch to Birmingham, which is something on which I worked closely with the outgoing Mayor and on which I hope to work with the new Mayor. When will that service be started for the benefit of my constituents?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I will write to my hon. Friend with the specifics of the timeline. I do not have the information with me, but I will make sure that we write to her with more guidance on that. My officials are working closely with the West Midlands Rail Executive, the joint client for the west midlands train industry partners on the entire project, to find and deliver the earliest solution.

I applaud the work that Redditch and Worcestershire councils have done to develop plans for improving Redditch station, in the heart of the Redditch railway quarter. This will help the area to compete effectively with nearby towns for economic activity and growth, while improving connectivity and opportunities for sustainable travel. I am very keen on this project, and I will be looking into it further. I thank my hon. Friend for raising it.

I am also pleased that the A38 Bromsgrove route enhancement programme, funded by my Department, is now being rolled out. I am sure that, once complete, it will be well used by Redditch residents to access Bromsgrove and Worcester.

I would like to focus on my Department’s desire to enhance rural mobility, which is important to me as an MP for a rural constituency and which was raised by Helen Morgan, who rightly highlighted the importance of rural mobility. We have published our “Future of Transport” rural innovation guidance to help support local authorities, and we have made up to £3 million of funding available to support rural transport innovation and tackle transport challenges in rural areas. Further, we are supporting the seven sub-national transport bodies to establish a centre of excellence on rural mobility.

I will address some points that have been made by right hon. and hon. Members. As I said, I will come back to my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch with specifics, but she asked about noise cameras. The Department has published research and analysis in the March 2024 plan for drivers on the efficiency of noise cameras. We are evaluating findings before we consider the next steps, but it is a matter we are keen to take forward. We know that it is a real blight for constituents, so we are keen to do more on that front.

The hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston and for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) talked about devolution and the desire for franchising. I have to say, that has been very much driven by this Government. Since 2010, we have looked to devolve more powers to the regions, because we take the view that the regions know best what their local solutions need to be and are represented in many instances by the Mayors that I work with.

The Government’s legislation on buses extended franchising to mayoral regions. Manchester has taken this on and, as was said, some time was taken for that to actually find its place. The West Yorkshire Mayor recently announced that West Yorkshire would be taking franchising forward. The point I make is that if the West Midlands Mayor decides that he wishes to take forward franchising for buses, that is a power we have devolved down, and that will be a matter for them. We will support that bid, as we have others. I want to be absolutely clear that that would not have happened had we not devolved those powers and had the Mayors not taken them on.

To the hon. Member for North Shropshire, the Command Paper on Network North made it clear that the Oswestry to Gobowen line would be reopened, with a new stop at Park Hall. Local to the area, we are looking to build a new station in Meir on the existing Crewe to Derby line and reopen the disused Barrow Hill and Stoke to Leek line. That commitment was there, and we will be bringing more detail on that forward, so I can give her that assurance.

My right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson asked about the Access for All programme. I can say that 230 stations have been given step-free access, which is really important to allow all members of the community, particularly those most vulnerable, to use their railway stations. That point was also raised by the hon. Member for North Shropshire. Looking at the next tranche, we have 300 really good bids and will be looking shortly to announce the latest that we will take forward. There was a £350 million commitment from Network North to further roll out Access for All and improve accessibility at stations. That is really important. We also want to get delivered those we have already promised. I am determined and committed on that particular front.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire never fails to push for more rail services. He is right on the Chase line electrification about the growth in passengers and more frequent services in rail. He has pressed me for more investment so that the weekday services Penkridge receives can be transferred to weekends and that Stone station gets its direct service to Manchester. I am taking forward the matter with those he has asked me to, and I will certainly convey his concerns on pothole funding to the roads Minister, my hon. Friend Guy Opperman. I will ensure that I write back to any other hon. Member who has raised points today with more detail.

To conclude, I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch has given us all the opportunity to discuss, debate and celebrate the significant investment that has been made available for transport in the west midlands, particularly in her constituency of Redditch. She always pushes for more for her constituents, and we always listen to her and will continue to do so. The Government’s Network North plan will continue investing in the journeys that matter to local people, bringing jobs, opportunities and growth to this region and beyond. I am pleased we have been able to debate the matter this afternoon.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department 6:14, 8 Mai 2024

This has been an excellent debate, very well supported by colleagues from all over the wider west midlands region. I want to extend my thanks to all my colleagues across the House, including those from Northern Ireland, who have taken part, highlighting the vital importance of transport connectivity, whether it is bus, rail—of course, that is the Minister’s own portfolio—active travel such as walking and cycling or other means of transport, or the use of the car, which is the essential route to freedom for our constituents. We must continue to enable constituents to use their cars to travel around their areas. I am proud to represent my constituency and the concerns of people across Redditch and the villages. Transport affects everybody every day, whether they are going to work, going out with their friends, or going to study and improve their opportunities.

I look forward to the Minister’s response on the numerous points I have put to him. I am sure he will come back with a comprehensive response, which I will be anticipating eagerly and sharing with my constituents. Thank you, Mr Henderson, and I thank the Minister.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered Government funding for transport in the West Midlands.

Sitting adjourned.