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In one form or another the Ormskirk bypass has been on the road transport agenda in West Lancashire for about 45 years. The current bypass proposal stands at No. 2 of Lancashire county council’s transport plan priorities, but since the recent disastrous decisions on regional priorities it has been dubbed the road to
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nowhere. The scheme is the key to unlocking many of the transport problems of West Lancashire, but it is being ignored. The local transport plan envisages significant public transport improvements along the Wigan, Skelmersdale, Ormskirk and Southport corridor. However, those can be fully realised only if the existing congestion is tackled. There is no question that the increasing number of car trips, exacerbated by poor public transport, is bringing Ormskirk town to a standstill. In the hot weather the local vicar and his wife hand out glasses of water to trapped, exasperated motorists who just cannot get through Ormskirk. We need the Ormskirk bypass as we face gridlock.

There is also a threat to life and limb as ever-bigger heavy goods vehicles thunder along unsuitable roads. The Government invested £15 million in a new secondary school in Ormskirk, and when I visited it recently schoolchildren expressed amazement that none of them had been killed or injured as a result of the ever-increasing size and number of HGVs thundering past the school. Other local residents complain that their homes are shaken to their foundations by those vehicles.

As the M6-Heysham road was due to be delivered, many people in West Lancashire naturally expected the Ormskirk bypass to move to No. 1 position. However, changes to the funding allocation process, away from local and towards regional priorities, mean that there is little likelihood, under the present system, of the road being built in the next 20 or 30 years. The decision not to make the Ormskirk bypass a regional priority will have serious economic, social and environmental implications for West Lancashire in the years ahead.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know and understand the importance of the road in my constituency because I raised the question with her predecessor and the Prime Minister several times, in questions and in correspondence. I am concerned that the process of regional prioritisation will mean a favourable wind for city region areas, and not for constituencies such as mine. Does that really mean that there is no prospect of delivering local transport priorities to aid the future prosperity of constituents such as mine? I do not believe that that is the Government’s intention. My concerns are compounded by recent information from Lancashire county council. Using the regional priority criteria, it reassessed the Ormskirk bypass, and according to that reassessment, the scheme would score a minimum of 100, not the 76 that it scored in the regional assembly’s assessment. Reassessing it using those criteria would put the Ormskirk bypass near the top of the second quartile, and would give it real prospects of being built.

The county council continues to work on progressing the scheme. It is currently collating information on an environmental assessment, and will submit a planning permission application at the end of the year. If agreement cannot be reached on the completion of the Heysham-M6 link road, could not precedence be given to the Ormskirk bypass, making it Lancashire’s No. 1 transport priority? If that were to happen, I hope that the Government would recognise the need to retain a Lancashire priority when allocating funding for a
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north-west transport scheme, and would therefore include the Ormskirk bypass.

My second issue is local bus services. This Labour Government once again demonstrated their commitment to public transport with the recent introduction of concessionary travel for the over-60s and the disabled. In the last Budget, it was announced that the scheme would be made a national scheme in 2008. In West Lancashire, we desperately need more buses and more funding for transport schemes, but where the Government are investing, local authorities are using some of the money to prop up their general revenue budgets. In my constituency, the Conservative-controlled district council received a very generous settlement of £900,000 for the new concessionary travel scheme. It estimated that it would cost £700,000 to fund the scheme and held the rest in reserves. It tried to conceal that fact by suggesting that the token scheme, which is already funded by the district council, is now being funded from Government money. Paul Daniels would be proud of that.

Once again, Conservative politicians are prepared to starve the transport system of much-needed funding. They failed to agree with other councils across Lancashire, including Lancashire county council, a scheme that allows free travel across Lancashire. That has angered local pensioners. The council could have made a real difference with the money, but has chosen not to. What good is a free bus pass if there are no buses to use it on? That is a common and vociferous complaint that many West Lancashire residents make to me. As one resident said, there are only so many times that one can travel between Ormskirk and Skelmersdale within the district.

Some of my constituents live on the edge of West Lancashire in Up Holland. Their nearest shops are in the next district, Wigan. They cannot get free travel to their local shops, so that bus pass is of no use to them whatever. There have been severe cuts in commercial bus services in West Lancashire in the past few years, and that will leave many of my constituents isolated and detached, unable to access core public services, employment opportunities or recreational activities.

Some years ago—before I became an MP—a decision was made to move the accident and emergency unit from Ormskirk to Southport, a decision that I believe to be absolutely and fundamentally wrong. A lack of transport infrastructure, fast road through Ormskirk or easily accessible public transport system compounds that bad decision and poses real threats to my constituents.

Another service, the Roundabout bus service, was funded by moneys made available under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. That bus service took Skelmersdale people to work, but when that money ran out, the scheme was stopped. Surely we can find solutions that enable people to get to work. That includes disabled people, who used the Roundabout bus services to go to Midstream, an organisation that enables them to carry out garden work. Dial-a-ride, for example, cannot guarantee to take such people to work every day. I am sure that my hon. Friend will point me in the direction of demand-responsive transport, and I am a firm supporter of that method of organising and providing transport schemes. Once again, however, the
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experiences of people in my constituency have not been encouraging. There is a dial-a-ride scheme that almost closed last year; it has six buses but can afford to run only three of them, despite the fact that people cannot get a bus to go to a doctor’s appointment. It is impossible for local people to understand.

We need to reassess who should be the main beneficiary of bus service provision. For the past 20 years it has been the bus operators, and we know only too well the damage that privatisation has caused to public transport services, particularly in constituencies such as West Lancashire. There is no getting away from the fact that bus services are not run on a social need basis or even to allow profitable services to subsidise less profitable routes. If we are to pursue a social inclusion agenda then transport is what connects all other aspects of life: health, education, support services, employment opportunities and social activities. In my constituency there is limited cemetery provision. Local people have to travel to Liverpool, St. Helens and Southport to bury their nearest and dearest. The problems that they face are compounded when they want to visit graves and find that they have to fight with a transport system that does not help them. That is the reality of the everyday situations that my constituents face and must negotiate.

I know that Lancashire county council spends approximately £8 million a year on subsidies for bus services. Those subsidies range from nearly £8 to perhaps £44 a passenger, which everybody will accept is not a sensible use of taxpayers’ money. We need solutions that get value and good services but do not leave people isolated from key public services or from their relatives.

Lancashire county council is an example of the Government providing substantial funding increases but local decisions meaning that my constituents get a poor deal. There has been an increase of £6.7 million and a further increase of £10.2 million, which is nearly a 5 per cent. increase in 2007-08, but in the past year 10 bus routes in West Lancashire have been withdrawn or reduced. There are currently another five routes that fail to meet the county council’s subsidy criteria, which are a maximum of £2 a journey or a minimum of a 20 per cent. revenue-cost ratio.

School bus services are under serious threat as the council looks to withdraw them. In a new town—Skelmersdale is a new town—that would place schoolchildren in danger as schools are not located near the centres of population and main roads are designed for cars, not pedestrians. There are no pavements on the main thoroughfares and it would be a travesty if the loss of a bus were to mean a loss of life. I understand that subsidies cannot be stretched to support all possible routes, so it is vital that we explore sustainable and realistic options to ensure some sort of transport provision across our communities, not just along profitable routes.

My final point is on rail transport. In February the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), opened a new interchange station at Burscough Bridge station in the heart of the community. It shows how we can better understand the ways in which people use public transport, and it is the beginning of a move towards more integrated transport services in the area.
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Burscough is a transport hub for much of the district, as it provides access to the wider region. We can enhance transport integration through further investment in rail services in Burscough. That would involve the electrification of the line from Ormskirk to Burscough Junction and the reinstatement of the southern Burscough curve, which would provide once again a local rail link between Ormskirk and Southport. Such a development would have benefits not only for the integrated transport system but for rural economies such as Burscough and I hope that the Government will support it. I know that there is an in-principle commitment to the scheme from the county council and from Merseytravel, and I would welcome a positive commitment from the Minister who is present today to drive it forward and examine how we could support such developments to better integrate modes of transport.

I am not asking simply for more money to be invested in transport provisions; I am asking for a fair distribution of what already exists. People have been patient in West Lancashire, and their voices—rather than just the voices of the big cities—should be heard. We are talking not just about adding value but about what is essential. Without it, we could potentially be creating transport haves and have-nots, and that is not acceptable to any of us.

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing this important debate for her constituents. As on previous occasions I listened carefully to her remarks. She is a tireless campaigner for her constituents and she continues to be a strong advocate for their views and concerns.

I appreciate that areas such as West Lancashire have particular transport challenges and opportunities. The larger settlements of Ormskirk, Skelmersdale and Burscough have grown around a network of major roads that has experienced an increase in traffic and congestion in many conditions.

The county’s local transport plan acknowledges the bypass as the most important proposal for West Lancashire. The A570 Ormskirk bypass is the county council’s second highest priority highway scheme after the Heysham-M6 link road scheme near Lancaster. At present, the A570 runs from the M58 to Southport, in a one-way system through the centre of Ormskirk. Through traffic conflicts with what is going on in the town centre and causes congestion, both for the through traffic and for local traffic. The local transport plan proposes a bypass that would take through traffic out of Ormskirk, improve journey times between the M58 and Southport, and reduce traffic congestion in the town centre. It would greatly improve access to local services, and the town centre would become a safer place for all road users.

As my hon. Friend has confirmed, there is strong support for the proposal from the local hospital trust, which suffers from difficulties with access to its two hospital sites. Lancashire county council is currently developing the proposal, and environmental assessment and traffic modelling work have started
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with a view to a planning application being made in due course. It will be a matter of years, however, before Lancashire county council is in a position to bid for funding.

As my hon. Friend is very clearly aware, last year the Government provided indicative financial allocations for every region, and asked the regions to provide 10-year investment programmes for housing, transport and economic development. All major transport schemes are part of that process, which represents an opportunity to show how the interrelated areas of transport, housing and economic development can be better aligned so as to serve the people of the region and the north-west better.

Each region was asked to prioritise, using the realistic funding assumptions, funding for major transport schemes up to and including 2015-16. In the north-west, the two regional bodies that were responsible for preparing advice to Ministers were the North West Development Agency and the regional assembly. The region’s advice was developed following a programme of regional and sub-regional consultation events. The Lancashire sub-regional event was held at the end of October and provided an opportunity for partners to provide advice about sub-regional and local priorities, and to inform the assessment criteria. All Lancashire local authority chief executives and leaders were invited to the event, which was followed by a regional consultation event held on 1 December last year to discuss the outcome with regional partners and to identify any major concerns. I understand that West Lancashire district council was represented at the meeting.

As my hon. Friend knows only too well, competition for funding for schemes in the north-west was, as elsewhere, tough. More than 100 schemes were assessed, many of them in the final stages of preparation, and 25 were identified as priorities, supporting regional and local objectives. In reaching its recommendation to Ministers, the North West regional assembly and the development agency took fully into account the assessment by independent consultants who were commissioned to examine economic, social and environmental impact and the deliverability of the schemes that were put forward by the local authorities.

In the event, the region accepted that the three schemes that Lancashire county council identified as top priorities should be prioritised for funding: the completion of the Heysham to M6 link; phase 1 of the Blackpool and Fleetwood tramway upgrade, with Blackpool borough council; and the East Lancashire rapid transit scheme, with Blackburn with Darwen borough council. That meant that the region did not recommend the Ormskirk bypass as one of the 25 prioritised schemes. I have heard only too clearly, both today and previously, how much of a disappointment that is to my hon. Friend and I understand that.

I also appreciate that the decision is disappointing to the people of Ormskirk. However, the decision on regional priorities does not exclude the possibility of the scheme being reconsidered at a later date when it is has been more fully worked up. I know that the county council is working to complete environmental appraisal and traffic modelling work once it has a clearer picture
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of the time scales and costs of the scheme. Once it has that, I assure my hon. Friend that we will be happy to discuss further the way forward with the council.

Rosie Cooper: May I just make a second plea: should there be difficulties over the Heysham-M6 link and the moneys not be spent in time, could the Ormskirk bypass be reconsidered?

Gillian Merron: I note clearly the point that my hon. Friend makes, but we still have to work on regional priorities. She might like to make that point to the relevant regional bodies who will be advising Ministers should that event occur. We are currently considering the recommendations from the north-west region and she can expect an announcement before the summer recess.

On rail, the reopening of the redundant railway lines known as the Burscough curves would improve rail links between Ormskirk and Southport and between Preston and Southport. The lines are protected as a long-term proposal in the Lancashire structure plan, but I regrettably must inform my hon. Friend that there are no current proposals to reopen the line.

On tackling congestion in West Lancashire, I understand and appreciate the strength of the case that my hon. Friend put for the Ormskirk bypass, reflecting, as I know, the strong views of her constituents. I am bound to point out, as I am sure she knows, that the building of bypasses is not the only way in which we can tackle congestion. Many initiatives do not require new infrastructure but aim to help people to reduce their car use while enhancing the attractiveness of alternatives. Such initiatives include workplace and school travel plans, personalised travel planning, travel awareness campaigns, public transport information and promotion, car clubs, car sharing, teleworking and teleconferencing, and home shopping.

As part of that, I know that my hon. Friend is particularly interested in the issue of buses. The Lancashire bus strategy will form an important element of the overall strategy on congestion—an issue that we are seeking to tackle. The Government recognise that buses are the backbone of our transport system and that compared with rail and light rail they are a flexible and low-cost option for tackling congestion, meeting environmental targets and, importantly, reducing social exclusion.

In West Lancashire, the proposed quality bus partnership for the Wigan-Skelmersdale-Ormskirk-Southport service will raise standards for an important route that takes staff, patients and visitors to the hospitals. I know that that is of great concern to my hon. Friend and her constituents. The county council will be working with bus operators and local authorities to raise the quality of vehicles and the infrastructure on that cross-border route.

I know that there has been some local concern in West Lancashire about the operation of the Government’s bus challenge initiative. The grant schemes were never intended to provide permanent revenue support for services and successful projects should become self-sustaining or part of mainstream support from local authorities or other sources. Inevitably, some services turn out to require a high level
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of subsidy and they are difficult to sustain. The local authorities, as we know, decide on the viability of such schemes.

I would also like to clarify the position for the Government’s concessionary fare scheme. All relevant authorities have extra money—my hon. Friend welcomed that, for which I thank her—and that reflects the new duty to provided free concessionary fares. The Government have put an additional £350 million into the settlement, which correctly reflects the cost of free fares. There is general agreement that there is enough additional money overall for the new local authority responsibilities. Both the level of the settlement and the way in which it is made reflect the fairest way of sharing out the money.

It is, of course, for local authorities to decide their overall funding priorities based on their judgment of local need and circumstances. Cross-boundary travel, which is important to my hon. Friend’s constituents, is offered at the discretion of the local authority. It must, of course, be based on their judgments of local needs and their overall financial priorities. Regrettably, the 14 district and unitary authorities of Lancashire have yet to agree on a county-wide concessionary travel scheme, so free travel across boundaries is not available at present although it is in other parts of the country. With that in mind, I have asked my officials to take it up with the authorities and I shall write to my hon. Friend on the matter.

As my hon. Friend will be well aware, we are introducing a national scheme in April 2008 that will allow older and disabled people free off-peak bus travel anywhere in England. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome that on behalf of her constituents. Capital funding for local transport in West Lancashire is allocated to Lancashire county council and the total funding provided to fund major schemes, integrated transport measures and maintenance of assets for transport since 1997 amounts to more than £185 million.

Having made those points, I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for doing such a good job in raising so clearly and ably on behalf of her constituents a range of issues that matter so much to them. I hope that I have been able to give her a response that will help her in continuing to work to improve transport in her local area.

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