On Tuesday 19 February, Caroline led a debate in Parliament demanding a better transport offer Don Valley towns.
A full transcript of Caroline's speech, including interventions from her fellow MPs, is below:
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport for towns.
I appreciate the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. The presence here of so many of my hon. Friends and other parliamentary colleagues shows the strength of feeling on the towns that we represent and on the importance of transport to our communities and their survival. There is no successful town that cannot move people around it efficiently, moving workers from homes to places of work at all hours, visitors to hospitals, patients to GPs, students to schools and colleges and even people on trips to the pub, cinema or leisure centre.
I represent a constituency of just over 100,000 people living in more than 30 towns and villages. Apart from one suburb, all those communities are detached from Doncaster town centre, many with open countryside in between. Undertaking my monthly surgeries across seven wards involves a 62-mile round trip. Reliance on cars is essential for many in those outlying communities, as public transport has failed them. Effective transport is central to revitalising our post-industrial towns and giving new life to our smaller town communities.
We often hear about connectivity, but that is all too often about links—massive infrastructure projects costing many billions of pounds—to major cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester in the north. No matter how right those projects are for our regions and for the country, they jar with people frustrated by the everyday transport problems that they face.
This is not new. When Tony Benn was MP for Bristol South East, he received a letter from a constituent that read:
“Dear Tony, I see the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any chance of a better bus service in Bristol?”
I want those voices to be heard. Like many of my colleagues here, I have fought against post office and bank closures. I have been exasperated by the last-call attitude to providing mobile phone and broadband coverage to our homes and businesses in towns. I struggle to understand why new housing developments are built without broadband.
The reality of transport for Britain’s smaller towns is very different from our cities. Our communities are often the places travelled past, not to; communities that no longer have rail services, or a bus service on certain days of the week or in the evenings. Last year, Joseph Rowntree Foundation research found that unaffordable and unreliable public transport cuts off the poorest families in the north of England from crucial job opportunities, making it harder for them to attend job interviews or to hold on to paid employment. Poor transport entrenches poverty.
Mike Hill (Hartlepool) (Lab)
My right hon. Friend is making an important speech. A lot of people in rural villages around Hartlepool, such as Elwick, are getting older. Does she agree that improvements to bus services, which can be vital links, are important not only to keeping those communities going but, from a social and welfare perspective, to keeping those older people connected to the towns that serve them?
I absolutely agree. I actually speak from personal experience, second hand though it may be, because my husband, Phil, lived in Stockton and travelled to Hartlepool every day to go to secondary school. In many respects, the service was probably better then than today for many of our schoolkids.
Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
My right hon. Friend is making an important speech. In accessing further education, schools, and also employment to help to pay for that education, young people in villages such as Barford and Bishop’s Tachbrook in my constituency are being alienated.
That is an important point about young people. I will talk later about the fatalities in my constituency of young drivers, who are often forced into getting a car as it is the only means of getting around. These young people are not drinking or anything else but are just inexperienced drivers on our country and rural roads. That is a big problem.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
My right hon. Friend and I have been good friends for many years, and I think we share the desire for a really good rail link across the northern regions and the northern midlands. That is absolutely essential. We now know that HS2 will cost £100 billion. Does she agree that it would be better if we invested that money in good local transport across the north of England?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the rising cost of those major infrastructure projects. Many people around the country find it hard to believe how much money is spent on HS2 and other projects—in some cases misspent if the projects are not kept on budget—when they find it hard to find a few thousand pounds for something that could make a big difference locally.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. I was talking to an old man in Spennymoor in my constituency who told me that when he was young he had taken a train from Spennymoor to Spain. Now there is not even a railway station, and it costs £10 to take a bus from Spennymoor to Barnard Castle. Does she agree that high bus fares make it impossible for most people to use public transport?
That is absolutely right. Although parts of our community get access to cheaper fares, for many people it is still a problem. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study makes the point that, for many of our constituents who are sadly at the lowest end of the pay scale, once they factor in transport costs and the hassle of getting to work—particularly if they are on shift patterns—it is hardly worth while. I have always been a strong believer that work should pay.
Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab)
I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. Ashfield falls under the north-east of England traffic commissioner. The latest annual figures show that 712 bus services were cancelled in that area, compared with 178 in the south-east and metropolitan area. That pattern has been repeated every year for the last six years. Is it not true that we are paying twice as much for half as good a service in our towns? That has to change.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it has to change. At its heart, this is about understanding the price of everything but the value of nothing. Too often, it is the economical routes—if that is the right word to use—that the operator is attracted to. Meanwhile, the areas of the country that cannot compete with our cities—certainly not London and the south-east—do not get a look in because it does not pay. That has to change for the common good.
James Frith (Bury North) (Lab)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is making an important argument. In Greater Manchester, 8 million miles of bus services were lost between 2014 and 2017. All too often, bus companies cherry-pick the profitable routes and ignore others, which means that many people on the outskirts, such as in Affetside in my constituency, are left behind. Does she agree that social prescribing should include access to transport to avoid isolation and the knock-on impact that that has on the wider social health of our population?
I absolutely agree. As a former Public Health Minister, I have always thought that we should not be confined to the clinical aspect of public health. It is also about housing and transport. So much of this debate is about air pollution, and given that our buses could run on green fuel, I would have thought that that is a no-brainer as a way to get people on to more sustainable, greener and affordable transport systems, which benefit not only individual travellers but the wider community by reducing air pollution.
Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate about transport in our towns. Normanton in my constituency used to be at the heart of the national rail network. Now, we have only one train an hour into Leeds, even though it is only about a 20-minute drive away. We see that pattern across the country. Towns are losing their connections, and there is real resentment about the fact that such a high proportion of the investment and infrastructure is going into cities, while towns are getting an unfair deal. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government must change their pattern of investment across the country if towns are to get a fair deal in the future?
My right hon. Friend is right. It is unfair to blame people for not taking up some of the massive job opportunities that our cities offer when it does not make sense for them to do so. We must change not only the investment but the attitude to transport. It is not just about cities but our towns. My right hon. Friend is right that our communities are being not only left behind but bypassed. They are isolated and excluded by planners, operators and, I am afraid, policy makers, who see them as uneconomic.
Ian C. Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab)
I was brought up in the Tyneside conurbation, and the passenger transport executive supplied an integrated bus system in the 1970s. My parents never had a car and travelled everywhere by bus and metro. We need a change of structure, so that our towns are brought into transport systems and we do not have a separate, privatised structure, which is at the heart of the problem that we now face.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Sometimes we have to look again at the old ideas that worked and see where they fit in the world we live in today. I am a great believer in not reinventing the wheel. What we do not need is just another set of initiatives that get rebranded as one Transport Minister passes the job to another and that mean we do not make any progress. What matters is what works. But first, to get to what works, we have to understand what people and communities actually need and how that can be inclusive.
Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), said that the north of England’s transport system had suffered “long-term under-investment stretching back decades”.
He is right, but still today London receives £4,155 of transport spend per person. That is two and a half times the figure for the north and five times more than Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-east.
As co-chair of the northern powerhouse all-party parliamentary group, I recognise the importance of our cities to the regions and smaller communities of the north. We need to accelerate the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail to provide a fast Hull-Manchester-Liverpool service. I do not want this debate to be about towns versus cities or the north versus London. However, big cities are magnets for investment in transport, technology, culture and jobs on a level that few UK towns could ever aspire to achieve. My constituents want to be able to travel to our cities for both work and pleasure. We want bright young professionals for whom city living is the pull—I get that; I was young once—
Ian C. Lucas
You still are.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comment. We want those young professionals to be able to travel easily and at an affordable price to work in our local schools and health services. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) pointed out, we have to have a twin-track transport strategy whereby we can deliver for both our towns and our cities. When announcements are made about the mega transport projects, the smaller schemes, which speak to our communities, should get equal billing.
I have a message of hope for this Minister. All is not lost; small changes can make a big difference. My own experience as the MP for Don Valley speaks to this. Under the last Labour Government, by 2002 Doncaster town centre had a new road bridge over the River Don. By 2005, two old, dirty bus stations were united in one airport-style clean and safe bus interchange attached to Doncaster railway station. Those two vital schemes are in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton), but they benefit everyone across Doncaster.
In 2002, a road bridge replaced a level crossing, connecting my communities of Denaby and Conisbrough to the economic developments in the Dearne valley. Doncaster’s 100-year aviation history was brought to an end when our last airbase, RAF Finningley, was closed in 1995. It was destined at that point to become my area’s third prison. Backed by a people-led campaign, FLY—Finningley Locals say Yes—I lobbied the newly elected Labour Government to cancel the prison and secure a commercial airport. My 1997 election address pledged to secure a link road from the M18 to Rossington village. Today, Doncaster Sheffield airport, which opened in 2005, supports more than 1,000 jobs and the planes fly to more than 50 destinations.
The road scheme took somewhat longer—21 years, with the final mile of the Great Yorkshire Way completed last year. It is not often that constituents tell us what a difference something has made to their lives, but that four miles of road network has done just that. It has cut 15 minutes off journey times to Sheffield and other work centres. It has ended the Cantley crawl along Bawtry Road to reach a route to the M18. The Great Yorkshire Way connects the Humber ports to the iPort strategic rail freight interchange—a development that created more than 2,000 jobs, including at a large Amazon distribution centre.
However, the relatively small results count just as much. I have had to fight with Government and planners over the years to ensure that the Rossington part of the road scheme was not dropped. Rossington was known as the village with one road in and one road out. People could be left waiting for 20 minutes because of the level crossing servicing inter-city trains. Now, they are connected to the Great Yorkshire Way; Rossington has a road that it feels it owns and can be proud of. That is how all infrastructure projects should be managed—by not losing sight of how important the small picture is to the bigger picture.
Not every town can have an airport to help to lever in transport investment, but every town can have its own small or large success story. Many towns and villages in Don Valley would benefit from better public transport services, as well as investment in road maintenance, including traffic calming. Many of my smaller communities, where national speed limits apply on rural roads, suffer from speeding traffic. We have an above-average rate of fatalities caused by young drivers. I believe speed is part of the cause, but the funding pot for repairs to roads and effective traffic management has suffered unsustainable cuts.
Housing built around a coalmining industry where people walked to work cannot cope with modern car ownership. There is a lack of parking spaces, so cars and commercial vehicles are parked on grass verges. That is unsightly and sometimes leads to antisocial behaviour, so we end up with a policing problem. Where funds have been found to tackle that practically, but not at the expense of green space, residents and the wider community have benefited. Small changes make a big difference, but there is not enough money, which stops a strategic programme being put together that gets the job done over time.
Last summer, I discovered that the 57 bus had been changed. Despite bus operators, the passenger transport executive and local authorities forming a bus partnership, they left Blaxton, one of my villages, with no convenient service to the nearest secondary school and sixth-form college, and some residents with no service to their GP practice in Finningley. On investigating, I found that neither the GP practice nor Doncaster clinical commissioning group had been consulted, and nor had the dial-a-ride service, which the bus operator assumed could provide transport for patients. Assumptions had been made about the school opening hours, too, which turned out to be wrong. I think that is typical of what happens in many small towns and villages. I do not think my transport stories are an exception.
I am sure the Minister will dazzle us with examples of funding pots and schemes to address concerns about transport in towns. I am not in denial about those initiatives, but too many of them just do not hit the mark. I support devolution, but it cannot be a journey just from Whitehall to the town hall. Our smaller communities still get left behind. I therefore have three asks of the Minister.
First, I want the Government to launch a national conversation about transport in towns. I do not want it to be dominated by the professionals, big businesses, the committee people and the usual suspects who respond to Government consultations. Instead, let us find new ways to hear from people in our towns and villages—people like the lady who wrote to Tony Benn all those years ago—about what bugs them and what makes them infuriated when they hear about the mounting billions spent on HS2 and other big Government projects that over-spend and under-deliver. What do we have to fear? A massive transport tab? Give the people credit. My constituents inspire me every day with their no-nonsense approach and understanding of priorities. Give them the chance to express their choices.
Secondly, we need a bus consultation review so that when bus operators and planners consult on new routes and timetables, the obvious destinations, such as shops, markets, schools and health centres, are all taken into account before changes are made.
Thirdly, we need to establish a rebuilding Britain fund that supports smaller but just as important infrastructure projects for our towns and villages. This is not just about transport, but transport without a doubt should be a significant part of it. If that fund is to work, our small towns cannot be expected to provide the kind of match funding that our cities and large towns can muster. Too often, they miss out on central funding because the match funding required is undeliverable locally. The fund should not require match funding. Alternatively—here is an idea—the Government should seek national or regional sponsors to support our towns, alongside Government resources, through the rebuilding Britain fund.
I do not expect the Minister to say, “Yes, yes, yes,” to those three asks, but I would welcome the opportunity—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I can always be surprised. I would welcome the opportunity to meet other colleagues to explore my asks at a later date. This debate follows an earlier Westminster Hall debate secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on Government support for a town of culture award, in which I and many other Members present participated. There will be more to come. We will not stop standing up for our towns and villages. We will not stop trying to convince the Government and all our political parties to remember that the voices of people in our towns count as much as those of people living in our cities and wealthy university towns, and to say to our towns that their best days are not behind them, that decline is not inevitable and that their communities do matter.