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Valerie Davey (Bristol, West) (Lab): I am pleased to present this petition, which was handed to me by Anne Crabtree, the co-ordinator of Bristol senior citizens forum, an active group with some 3,000 members.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House shall urge the Ministry of Work and Pensions to consider the plight of Anne Crabtree and others in a similar situation and to endeavour to keep the Order Book system in place of or in addition to the intended regime.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I start by thanking the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), not only for coming to the House this evening to answer my debate, but for the profoundly important decision that she made two weeks ago to allow the Bexhill link road to go ahead.
A new route to join the A259 to the A21 is vital to my constituency and will reduce pollution and chronic congestion. The new proposal is on a smaller scale; nevertheless, it is a significant improvement on the old Hastings bypass. I know that the Minister had to examine the proposal carefully. However necessary any new road might be, important environmental considerations must always be weighed up. I am glad that she agreed with me and the vast majority of my constituents that in this case the benefits of the scheme significantly outweighed the costs.
I know that the decision was a financial close call, as funding for new transport projects in our part of the country is limited, and the Minister had to turn down several competing projects. I am particularly grateful to her for taking the trouble to meet me and others from my area to listen to the arguments in person, before reaching her decision. Her courtesy and diligence will stand her in good stead as she climbs the ministerial ladder.
The green light for the link road has come as a huge relief to my community. It is a major step forward in our endeavour to regenerate the economies of both Bexhill and Hastings, and with it to improve the life chances of so many local people. The link road is vital to the creation of new jobs and to the opening up of land to build sustainable homes for local families, and in so doing relieving pressure to build in villages in areas of outstanding natural beauty. First and foremost, the Minister's decision recognised that improved connectivity is crucial to the future of the whole area.
It is almost unbelievable that at the same time as that historic decision to improve the road infrastructure of our area, the Government, through the Strategic Rail Authority, could even countenance axeing the direct train service to Gatwick, East Croydon and London from Bexhill and significantly downgrading the coastal rail service.
Earlier this year, the SRA published a document entitled, "Brighton Main Line, Route Utilisation Strategy", which has a nice picture of the clock at Brighton station on its cover. Richard Bowker's foreword to the document makes it clear that the document is primarily concerned with changes and improvements to the running of services from Brighton to London termini. Indeed, Mr. Bowker's foreword does not mention Bexhill, which gets a mention only towards the end of the executive summary.
"In order to deliver better performance across Eastbourne, and to reflect the local nature of the market between Eastbourne and Hastings, the through service from Hastings and Bexhill to London (via Gatwick) is now proposed to start and terminate at Eastbourne."
That seemingly innocent afterthought to this completely Brighton-centred document would in fact have a devastating effect on the town of Bexhill were it allowed to be implemented. The psychological impact alone would be enormous. The net result of the proposal would be to lengthen the journey time to London and increase the scope for significant delays. Most importantly, however easy the SRA endeavours to make a platform change, the inescapable necessity of changing trains will have a profound effect on every passenger's willingness to use the train service.
I appreciate that the principal aim of the route utilisation strategy is to improve performance, but there is very little in the SRA proposal that would be regarded by my constituents as an improvement, and a very great deal that would be seen as highly damaging. The whole town of Bexhill has been united in condemning these proposals, which saw the light of day only at the very end of the statutory consultation period.
Opposition to the plans goes right across all political party boundaries, and they have been strongly criticised by Rother district council, Hastings borough council, East Sussex county council, the Bexhill town forum, the Bexhill chamber of commerce and the Hastings and Bexhill taskforce, on whose board I sit and whose other members include the South East England Development Agency and the Government office for the south-east. I want particularly to pay tribute to the energetic campaign of Rother district council's lead cabinet member for transport, Councillor Ian Jenkins, who was one of the first to spot the dangers that the proposals pose to Bexhill.
The impact on the town would hit trade, tourism, commuters, elderly passengers and students. I shall deal briefly with each of those groups. Many commuters have written to me to make clear their objections to the scheme, but none has put their case more articulately than my constituent, Mr. John Cormode, a management consultant residing in Bexhill who specialises in change management and business research. In a letter to the SRA, he wrote:
"I was absolutely appalled to learn that the SRA is actively proposing changes that will cause a further considerable deterioration in the train service for customers between Bexhill and London, in a Government regeneration area.
By abolishing the only direct rail link between Bexhill and London, making passengers change at Eastbourne, will add at least 30 minutes to the journey timeassuming the connections always work. If the connections do not work we can look forward to adding at least an hour and a half to the journey time! I am a season ticket holder from Cooden Beach to London and the daily journey time each way already takes 2 hours . . . it would be quicker to travel to Darlington or Brussels than Bexhill! The service will particularly deteriorate for the journey home, when there are even fewer trains from London to Bexhill than in the morning. At Cooden Beach up to 12 passengers regularly use the 0635 serviceall of us will now not reach London until after 9 o'clock with further journeys to our place of work on top of this.
The excuse that 'new' rolling stock is not compatible with the 'old' does not mean that these changes need to be made. You find it possible now to run 'new' rolling stock trains to London at 0635 and an 'old' rolling stock train for my journey home. To
Your proposals make even less sense at a time when central and local government, all the regional agencies and local business groups are doing everything possible to regenerate Bexhill and the surrounding area. I can think of no other single act by an agency like yourselves that will ensure that these regeneration plans and the local economy goes rapidly into reverse. The £6 million spent on creating the biggest arts centre in the South East at Bexhill, the funding of the University Centre in Hastings, or improving Bexhill and Cooden railway stations will not lead to regeneration if the SRA's proposals mean that they make it very much more difficult for the public to reach them, or people to visit, live and work from Bexhill."
The Bexhill town forum has been equally vociferous in its opposition to the proposals. Mrs. Margaret Jones has made the forum's concerns clear to the SRA, reflecting its unanimous vote on 30 November to oppose the SRA's plans. The forum is particularly concerned about the effect that the loss of a direct service from London will have on the De La Warr pavilion. The De La Warr will reopen next year, after an extensive refurbishment, as an international arts centre and the biggest contemporary art gallery in the south-east of England.
It is estimated that 50 per cent. of its visitors from outside Bexhill will reach the De La Warr by train. In 2001, the De La Warr attracted 500,000 visitors, of whom 75,000 came directly from London. In 2005, the refurbished De La Warr is expected to attract more than 750,000 visitors, of whom 150,000 are projected to come from London. The De La Warr Charitable Trust told me that
"we are preparing a programme of National Work to encourage people from London and the suburbs to visit. These are events and work that will not be seen in London. We aim to produce world class programmes for a national audience. Any disruption in transport would have a severe impact on our ability to attract a national audience."
Imagine if Glyndebourne opera house, which successfully attracts a large audience who travel by train every year, had to tell opera goers taking the train at Victoria that they needed to change halfway through their journey. It would fundamentally undermine their ability to operate.
We must not overlook the elderly population in Bexhill, who depend on the train service, especially its direct link to Gatwick airport. Bexhill has the second largest pensioner population in Britain and the highest proportion of over-80s in the south-east. The prospect of changing trains with suitcases and luggage would be a profound deterrent to those who do not wish to take the car to the airport.
It is also vital when attracting new businesses into our area as part of the regeneration initiative that not only Bexhillians should enjoy direct rail access to Gatwick but foreign visitors landing at the airport should be able to enjoy direct rail access to Bexhill. The public transport policy officer at East Sussex county council rightly pointed out that the proposals are not only about cutting a direct link to London but proposed cuts to the volume of services. Pevensey Bay and Cooden Beach
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1644
station would lose one service to London an hour, and the very existence of Collington and Normans Bay stations could be threatened.
I should like efforts to be made to encourage more people off the roads and on to the trains. The proposals would have the opposite effect. The cuts, together with previous changes, have not happened anywhere else on the network on such a scale. Transport professionals have serious concerns about the proposed connection at either Eastbourne or Polegate. Previous promises about connecting trains from Brighton to Hove have not been kept and it is clear that a train coming along the coast would not wait for a delayed service from London, leaving Bexhillians who were travelling home absolutely stranded.
I summarise by saying that these ill-thought-through and poorly researched proposals would have a devastating effect on Bexhill. They would drive more people on to the already crowded roads of East Sussex. Mr. David Getty, the president of the chamber of commerce and tourism in Bexhill, said:
"The reduction in service levels resulting in the abolition of a direct rail link from Bexhill to Gatwick and London will seriously hinder attempts to regenerate business in Bexhill. At a time when the local public and private sectors are working closely together to secure investment for a range of regeneration initiatives their success is jeopardised by the decision to downgrade Bexhill to a town with no direct rail link to London.
Major local employers in the fields of insurance and education, particularly those teaching English as a foreign language, will suffer through the loss of the direct link, particularly to those towns competing for this business which do have a direct link such as Eastbourne and Hastings"
"onto the roads. They will not risk the uncertainty of changing trains at Eastbournewhere there are already regular instances of delays due to lack of connecting stock or drivers . . . they will simply travel by road to Polegate or Battle to join London trains from Eastbourne or Hastings respectively.
The SRA has said that 'it cannot fund assistance towards regeneration'no one is asking it to do so; but it should not be permitted to threaten regeneration without the clearest of compelling financial data. The SRA has not come close to meeting this basic requirement: it has been unable and unwilling to state how many people use the direct train under threat"
The SRA proposals take no account of the projected growth in population of Bexhill, which will follow directly as a result of the Minister's historic announcement two weeks ago, nor of the projected growth in visitors to the area as our economy regenerates and tourism revives. The SRA proposals are simply a formula to run down our railway to a point where it could lose a critical mass of passengers. If that were allowed to happen, the inevitable logic of the SRA's arguments is that the line would be likely to close altogether in the years to come. The SRA, in a letter to me of 8 December, said:
"We accept that changing trains will inconvenience through passengers and discourage people from making these journeys. We also accept your comments that this would have an adverse effect on the local economy."
If joined-up thinking on transport is not the remit of the Strategic Rail Authority one wonders why it bothers to include the word "strategic" in its name. Such thinking, however, is the responsibility of the Government, the Department for Transport and every transport Minister. I therefore make a plea to the Under-Secretary, who has shown good judgment to date. I urge her in good faith to intervene and direct the SRA to step back from these destructive proposals, and safeguard the benefits for Bexhill and the surrounding area, as promised by her historic decision two weeks ago.
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