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Public Transport (Leigh)

11 am

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): It is a welcome, if somewhat rare, pleasure to have the chance to focus the attention of the House on the needs of my constituency and, in particular, its appalling public transport provision. I note that the Minister has already been present for one debate and I feel somewhat guilty about detaining him further—he may consider it a kind of detention. He is welcome to write out 100 times, "I must do more for public transport in Leigh," but I will leave that up to him.

Now is perhaps not the best time in the parliamentary cycle to highlight areas of failure, but as the growing debate about transport priorities in the north-west has gone live, I have felt increasing frustration about the raw deal that my constituents are getting. It cannot be allowed to continue. Last year, a major transport scheme in my constituency, the Leigh-Salford-Manchester guided busway, was one of a number of schemes placed on hold pending a review of transport priorities by the North West regional assembly. In the region, that was seen as a consequence of ongoing negotiations about the Metrolink scheme.

Metrolink does not affect my constituency directly, but I have supported colleagues in the call to get it back on track because I recognise its huge strategic importance to the economic regeneration of our city region. Of course, all the towns in Greater Manchester, Leigh included, have a stake in the continuing success story of city centre Manchester. That is why it is right that my constituents should contribute to Metrolink via their council tax. However, there is a real danger that Greater Manchester's transport needs will become defined by Metrolink. If the lobbying campaign pays off and the scheme goes ahead—as I have said, I hope that it does—transport officials may feel that Manchester has had its lot and should not come knocking for some time. I hope that the Minister understands and appreciates how unfair we would feel that was.

The Greater Manchester passenger transport authority has long recognised that links west from Manchester are poor and that there is no immediate prospect of the towns along the East Lancashire road leading to Leigh benefiting from Metrolink. For precisely that reason, the £26 million guided busway was long in the planning to compensate Leigh for not being part of Metrolink, not phase 3 but phase 2. The guided busway was expected to be fully operational by this year.

I sought this debate because I believe that Leigh's transport needs are becoming lost in the debate about Metrolink. It would seem that the guided busway has been thrown back into the pot of medium to low-priority public transport schemes in the north-west, even though it was given provisional planning and funding approval by the Department for Transport a couple of years ago. There are many things in its favour. It is an innovative use of bus transport, which seems to fit well with current priorities in the Department, and it would cut congestion on one of the north-west's main arterial routes, the East Lancashire road, which is a severe and growing problem.
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I know the Minister well and I appreciate that he may be subject to more constituency special pleading than most Ministers, but, if he will allow me, I would like to issue something of a challenge to him—he is not normally one to back down from a challenge. I ask him to see whether he can find a town similar in size to Leigh, with a population of roughly 43,000 people, in a metropolitan borough, which has poorer public transport provision than we do. I hope that he will take me up on that challenge, because I genuinely do not believe that he can find such a town. My constituents are getting the rawest deal of any in the country.

There are some facts to back up the rhetoric. First, Leigh is the largest town in the country without a rail station. In addition, there is no tram station. We do not benefit from Metrolink, as I have said. Buses are the only option. Secondly, as I will show in the course of my remarks, new research from the House of Commons Library shows that, for public transport, Leigh is by a long margin the worst-served town in Greater Manchester.

I understand the need to balance priorities and to focus scarce public transport resources on areas of strategic transport importance, but it is not as though Leigh is a backwater. We are located at the crossroads of the north-west, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, and we are flanked on one side by the M6, with the East Lancashire road to the south. We are a matter of miles from overdeveloped Warrington. I do not say that to antagonise my Warrington colleagues, but the town has experienced significant development in the past 20 years, and Leigh is well placed to take up some of the extra development that the north-west is experiencing.

Public transport resources should go towards easing congestion on strategic routes, but they should also pick out the areas of greatest social deprivation. Leigh provides a perfect case study of the importance of quality transport links in preserving a town's economic, social and cultural well-being and of what happens when those links are lost.

In the '50s and '60s—perhaps you will remember this, Mr. Deputy Speaker—Leigh was a thriving industrial town, with high employment in coal mining, the textile industry and engineering of many kinds; big employers such as BICC and David Brown Tractors were based there. However, the 1963 White Paper "The Reshaping of British Railways" dealt the town a savage blow, the proportions of which could not have been imagined at the time. As a result of the Beeching cuts, railway lines passing through Leigh were closed and all the town's stations were lost. Since then, the area has suffered huge social and economic decline. The Beeching cuts were the catalyst for the loss of thousands of jobs in traditional industries and at major public facilities, such as our accident and emergency department.

That act of savagery towards Leigh by Howard Macmillan's Conservative Government was compounded by Margaret Thatcher—our town was left cut off and isolated when the worst of the Thatcher Government's cuts took effect. Following the large job losses that came with the closure of the coal mines and other heavy industries, people were simply unable to find alternative employment; indeed, they really would have had to get on their bikes to do so, because no other transport was available. A double whammy was landed on our town.
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The combination of the lack of transport and the loss of employment knocked the stuffing out of Leigh, and the lack of quality transport links has held back our recovery ever since. We are now beginning to see signs of that recovery—the Wigan borough has its lowest unemployment rate for a generation—but the travel-to-work survey in the 2000 census shows that public transport has played little or no part in that. People's only option is to use buses, which simply cannot be relied on to get them to work on time in the main areas of employment: Manchester, Warrington and Bolton.

I should say at this point that in Jim Stones Coaches, Leigh has the best local bus operator in the whole of Greater Manchester, if not the north-west. Jim and his team have provided a first-class service since deregulation and they are thoroughly committed to serving the people of the town. I do not know where we would be without the service that they have provided.

To return to the main issue, however, the 2000 census shows that Leigh residents must rely on cars far more than the residents of any of the other 16 towns in Greater Manchester, with all the extra costs that that puts on people in low to medium-paid work. Only 7.9   per cent. of people aged between 16 and 74 in employment in Leigh use public transport to get to work, which is an appallingly low figure. If the Minister doubted my rhetoric earlier, that figure tells its own story about the quality of public transport in Leigh. Those cars jam the East Lancashire road, the M62 and the A49 junction at Winwick every morning.

As I said, I have independent verification of my argument from the House of Commons Library. I commissioned from it a survey of public transport provision in the 16 biggest towns of Greater Manchester. It confirmed what many people knew: Leigh is the only town without an overground train station or a Metrolink tram service. To add insult to injury, even I was shocked to find that Leigh came bottom in the list of towns ranked according to quality of bus links to central Manchester, with only three frequent services. The Library report states:

The report concludes that

With the exception of Atherleigh way, opened in the mid-1980s and funded by the old Greater Manchester council, Leigh has not had any major transport investment since Beeching did his damage.

The Minister will probably be pleased that I am coming to the end of what he may regard as a long whinge, but I make no apology for it. What I have said needs to be said, and the voice of my constituents needs to be heard, because the current state of affairs is not acceptable. In conclusion then, what am I asking from the Minister and from transport officials, both in our region and in Whitehall? Longer term, Leigh needs access to rail or tram services to the east and west—to Liverpool and to Manchester. We are strategically well located, on the main crossroads between the two great towns of the north-west. In the interim, however, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider a number of specific requests.
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First, I hope that my hon. Friend and his officials will reflect on what I have said and let me know whether they think Leigh is fairly served. I would appreciate a response to the challenge of finding an equivalent-sized town that is more poorly served by transport. As an aside, I also ask the North West regional assembly, which has been instructed by the Department to review transport priorities in the region, to consider what I have said as a contribution to its consultation.

Secondly, I hope that the Minister will clear up the outstanding planning issues affecting the Leigh guided busway as soon as possible, or at least give a commitment to do so. The problem is holding things up, and resolving a number of what I understand to be minor issues would help us to make progress. The Minister may recall that the Secretary of State gave the scheme planning approval in principle some time ago, pending work on other issues, which required further evidence. I am afraid that there is a blight on Leigh and our area in the north-west in that we have, it seems, a large number of great-crested newts, which hold back human progress in the area. I hope that the Minister can say that the issues surrounding the protection of the newts have been satisfactorily dealt with.

Thirdly, there is a genuinely unanswerable case for the Department, working with the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive, to find an immediate funding solution for the busway. Given that provisional funding approval has already been given and that it was part of the deal for Metrolink phase 2, it is not fair that the busway is now pitched back into the pot with the other schemes in the north-west competing for funding. The busway had already been picked out as a priority for progress.

Fourthly, I hope that the Minister will take an urgent look at our proposal for a rail station in the former mining village of Golborne. My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and I are utterly convinced that a rail station there would be a well used feature of strategic importance in the region. Such a station would be our best hope of bringing a rail service to the Leigh and Lowton areas in the not-too-distant future. However, we have experienced great frustration in getting the component parts of the rail industry to engage positively with the case that we have made.

Such a station would be right on the edge of a major sporting facility, Haydock race course, which attracts thousands of visitors every year—I know, because my house is literally next door and they queue up at the end of my drive. I do not call for a station there because of my nimby considerations. The place in question is nestled in the corner between the M6 and the East Lancs road, and there is a huge sporting facility on our doorstep, so it would make great sense to have a station there. Will the Minister see whether he can get more positive engagement from transport officials on that issue?

Ironically, Merseytravel has shown more interest in the Golborne station proposal. It will soon launch a Golborne rail link bus service between the potential site at Golborne and Newton-le-Willows station in Merseyside, in the hope of building a market for rail
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travel in the Golborne area. Merseytravel deserves help and encouragement from other parties, not least the GMPTE, to approach the proposal with a will to make it succeed.

As I acknowledged, my speech has been something of a whinge, but I ask hon. Members to imagine sitting where I am and having to talk about public transport in Leigh; I would be laughed out of court if I claimed there had been all kinds of positive progress. The situation is not good enough and it needs to improve. I am raising the stakes today and saying that for the next few years I will keep on banging the drum until there have been real improvements.

Until my constituents have real alternatives to the car to enable them to get to their place of work I shall fight tooth and nail any proposal for a congestion charge in Greater Manchester.

11.16 am

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) on securing the debate. When he puts his comments so eloquently and passionately, to reflect what he sees as the reality in his constituency, I do not see it as a whinge-fest. I see it as the duty of a committed constituency MP.

I can answer part of my hon. Friend's query about whether there are people in a worse position by comparing Leigh, with its population of 43,000, with Corby, which has a population of some 50,000 and does not have a railway station. I will leave to one side the rest of the question. The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), has let me know a few times in recent years that Corby is probably the largest town with no station.

I agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh about the geography of Leigh and Wigan metropolitan borough council, by which Leigh is covered. I accept his points about the town's being on the western fringe of Greater Manchester. As to Metrolink, broadly speaking, everyone certainly accepted that it would be a long time before Metrolink or trams came to either Bolton or Wigan on the western side of the conurbation.

One of the key ways in which we shall deal with public transport is through investment—sustained investment. Over the next three years we shall invest about £870   million in the north-west. That is a major investment. The investment that we are allocating to each region will, it is to be hoped, reflect their economic and environmental objectives. By the bye, over the past three years local authorities in the north-west received more investment than those in any other region, through the local plan process.

In December we announced funding of more than £620 million over the next three years for north-west local authorities. Of the £225 million allocated for 2005–06, £92 million was for Greater Manchester, including about £43 million for small-scale integrated transport schemes of less than £5 million, for transport improvements to ease congestion, increase safety and create a better environment. Wigan council, the local authority responsible for my hon. Friend's area, was given an allocation of £4.109 million.
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As I said, Manchester recognises that Metrolink is perhaps not as inextricably linked to all transport spend throughout the authority's area as my hon. Friend suggests, but I understand why he said what he did. The Department has helped Wigan to invest a total of £4.1 million in schemes funded from the Greater Manchester transport infrastructure fund. That fund was set aside by the Government and Greater Manchester in recognition of the fact that Bolton and Wigan would wait a long time for links to be provided by Metrolink. My hon. Friend will know that in February the Department agreed to provide £3.5 million for the fund in 2005–06 and a further £3.5 million in 2006–07. We shall discuss with the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, which will match that funding, how the money should be spent in Bolton and Wigan. I know that they will not get the large-scale investments that my hon. Friend thinks are needed for Leigh and the borough of Wigan to secure more public transport, but the sums are, in part, recognition of the fact that Metrolink will not come soon to Bolton or the borough of Wigan.

My hon. Friend needs to recognise that there have been some advances, albeit limited in his terms. In 2003–04, Greater Manchester spent nearly £6 million on bus priority schemes and £1.6 million on bus infrastructure schemes, implementing both the south-east Manchester multi-modal study quality bus corridor and the Leigh-Bolton QBC. Apparently I went on the A6 QBC on one of my recent visits to Manchester. I am trying to remember when and in what context, but I cannot. The Leigh-Bolton QBC was completed in 2003 at a cost of some £4.8 million, and has increased passenger reach by 16 per cent., earning time savings of between 10 and 13 per cent.—typically six to nine minutes—and the corridor has brought improved facilities and environmental improvements to Atherton town centre.

My hon. Friend will know of the night bus initiative that connects Manchester city centre to Leigh. Many of those late night journeys are now being run on a commercial basis. Some 1,700 passengers a week use the night bus. He will know, too, of the yellow school bus scheme, in which Wigan has participated, which has introduced American-style yellow school buses to serve Standish high school, among others. I understand that there are plans to purchase additional buses to serve St.   Mary's Roman Catholic high school in the constituency.

I know that the biggest disappointment for my hon. Friend is the Leigh guided busway. That was one of the major schemes submitted as part of this year's local transport annual performance round. The proposal by Greater Manchester passenger transport executive to build a new guided busway between Leigh and Ellenbrook is the subject of a planning application to the Secretary of State for an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992. The order, if made, will give GMPTE the statutory powers that it requires to implement the scheme, entirely separately, as my hon. Friend suggests, from the funding process. My hon. Friend is aware that the Department had to defer consideration of that application until GMPTE had provided some important additional information on the environmental impact of the scheme, in particular more detailed survey work on the great-crested newt, which is a protected species.
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Last October, GMPTE provided a substantial amount of further information, which, as part of the planning process, had to be sent to other interested parties for comment. The process of exchanging written representations on the new information concluded last month. Because the case is still awaiting statutory determination, I am unable to discuss its merits, as my hon. Friend will appreciate. However, I can assure him that every effort will be made to bring the matter to a conclusion as soon as possible. I hope to be able to make a decision once all the evidence presented for and against the proposals has been carefully considered, all the necessary work has been done by GMPTE on the great-crested newt and other elements, and all the exchange and representation between assorted parties as part of that process has taken place.

The report is now, in its entirety, with the Department for Transport, and I shall ensure that, having weighed the evidence carefully, we make a decision at the earliest possible opportunity. The other half of the equation, as my hon. Friend suggests, is the funding of the scheme.

Andy Burnham : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that commitment. As I understand it, the information was submitted some time ago. He probably does not know the date of any Dissolution of this place any more than I do, but I hope that I can prevail on him to say that it would make sense to make the decision sooner, rather than later, given that there may be some interruption.

Mr. McNulty : Given that it is a statutory, or quasi-statutory, process, I cannot give any fixed assurances about a timetable. Suffice it to say that when I go back to the Department, I will try informally to elicit what stage we are at and when we can anticipate a decision.

Although I will bear in mind my hon. Friend's points about alacrity, I have no idea about Prorogation, Dissolution or anything else. I will not promise to do or not do something in the light of a date about which I, my hon. Friend and even the enlightened Deputy Speaker know nothing except what we read in the papers and idly speculate about with colleagues over cups of tea.

My hon. Friend will know that as part of the spending review 2004, and bearing in mind the Government's desire for greater regional involvement in privatisation, we have had to review the relative priority of major local transport schemes. I would not say as abruptly as my hon. Friend that the Leigh guided busway has been lost in the fog and smoke of the debates about Metrolink, but clearly as we move to greater regional devolution there will be finite pots of funding for each region. Perhaps there will be some additional strategic elements but, as ever, politics is the language of priorities, whether decisions are made regionally or at the centre. I unpick my hon. Friend's argument a little bit, none the less I understand the points that he made.

Difficult decisions have had to be made about the priorities of investment proposals. Let me make it very clear: we certainly recognise the merits of the Leigh guided busway scheme. That is precisely why it was given provisional approval in the first place. There is no question about the merits of the project, but since then the cost of the total quality bus contract scheme has gone up significantly, with Government contributions increasing by £17 million to £42.3 million. Given the
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other funding pressures in the north-west, it has not been possible to prioritise the scheme for funding in the current spending review period. That decision can, and should, be regularly revisited. The scheme has not been cancelled and we will consider it again in the light of advice on priorities received from the region.

It is important to say that in the three-year spending review and the last local transport plan settlement, an image was formed—I understand why—that if projects were not set running this year, they would somehow be put to the back of the queue, with no consideration until post 2008 and the next round of the comprehensive spending review. That is not accurate, as there will be any amount of to-ing and fro-ing, slippages and other changes in the regional pot and the projects that have been prioritised as we look at the world in 2005. It is incumbent on us and the region to review the regional prioritisation list on a year-by-year basis, even within the curtilage of the three-year spending programme. That is not to say in any coded way, "The money's there, don't worry about it", but things are not as stark as has often been suggested since the 1 December regionally focused settlement. They are not as stark as my saying, "Leigh guided busway has no chance until the next spending review." The position is far more fluid than that.

I accept much of what my hon. Friend says about Leigh and Wigan borough council being a poorer relation in transport provision for Greater Manchester. I accept his point about the peculiarities of Leigh and Wigan, given that they are on the western periphery of Greater Manchester and sit almost squashed between Merseyside, Warrington and Manchester—the crossroads to everywhere but with contacts to nowhere. I accept those points broadly, and I will look further into the points that he raises.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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