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7.40 pm

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I have been asked to present a petition about an aspect of the situation in Iraq that has gone largely unreported: the systematic attacks on and murder of gay and lesbian Iraqis. The petition is signed by David Harvey and is supported by the names of 234 other people. The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Birmingham New Street Station

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Michael Foster.]

7.41 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I should first declare an interest in the matter. The concerns that I am addressing tonight are the concerns not just of my constituents in Birmingham, Edgbaston but of the constituents of all Birmingham MPs: my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe), for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), and for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), and the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). They are either here in the Chamber or have pressing business that prevents them from being here, but they are in agreement. Also in agreement is the Birmingham gateway consortium, which includes Network Rail, Birmingham city council, Advantage West Midlands and Centro passenger transport executive.

For those members who are lucky enough not to be as familiar with New Street station as we are in the west midlands, I should perhaps paint a picture of the station, past and present. New Street station was opened in 1854 and was one of the first major transport hubs in the west midlands.

The station has since undergone a variety of transformations, and was entirely rebuilt in 1967. It became the first in the country to make a commercial venture out of the air space above it. That is common now, but at that time building on top of the station and using that space for shops was unique. The decision to capitalise on that valuable strategic area was a commercially astute one, which served to off-set the cost of redeveloping the station. New Street was in fact something of a flash of modernity, featuring a range of characteristics that were both intriguing and ingenious.

Forty years on, the parts of the station that once felt impressive now seem rather more dated. It is a station that, to pick up on a common phrase these days, is no longer fit for purpose.

New Street station handles more people than Gatwick airport, and there are more trains through the station than planes through Heathrow each day. Congestion at the station has become a serious concern and staff have had to close it on several occasions in the past few years as a result of overcrowding.

Nor is it a problem that will go away. The recent west midlands rail capacity review, which examined rail capacity requirements in the context of proposals for the redevelopment of New Street station, highlighted a number of key points. It showed that passenger numbers are growing fast, with a further 50 per cent. growth forecast by 2026; that New Street station will remain the hub for local and regional services; and that the network can accommodate significant passenger growth—up to 120 per cent. on regional and suburban
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lines and perhaps over 144 per cent. on long-distance services—but the station itself cannot cope with the forecast demand.

To give Members some indication of the numbers involved, during the peak three-hour period, around 40,000 people go through the station. That rises to more than 120,000 over the day as a whole. Those numbers are based on 2003 figures. In short, more passenger capacity is desperately needed at New Street.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): As my hon. Friend says, her comments have the support of all Birmingham Members. Would she emphasise, however, that the renewal of New Street station is not just a local or even regional issue but of strategic significance to the national railway network?

Ms Stuart: My hon. Friend is correct. The station handles about 80 per cent. of daily services to Birmingham, including long-distance trains from Euston to the north, services from the south and south-west of Scotland, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool, and east-west services to East Anglia and through central Wales. Only recently, we found out that yet more services will terminate at New Street. Birmingham New Street is therefore an essential hub for both long-distance travel and shorter journeys throughout the UK. Its significance should therefore be considered within the wider context of the Government’s strategy for the future of inter-city rail travel.

The problem is not simply one of capacity. The Government have a clear target to reduce the environmental impact of transport. Trains create far less carbon dioxide than road or air transport for every passenger that they carry or tonnes of freight that they move. By rail, the average passenger generates 49g of CO2 per km, against 109g by car and 180g on a domestic short-haul flight. We must therefore create the opportunity for the modal shift away from cars and planes to trains. The recently published Stern report highlights the national economic necessity of getting those decisions right now.

Moreover, transport infrastructure is one of the key factors that determines the success or otherwise of a region’s economy. According to the west midlands transport partnership, the business community believes that congestion in the west midlands is currently costing our local economy £2.2 billion a year. Government funding of £350 million is a small percentage of that.

The restraint on the west midlands because of inadequacies at New Street station is simply not sustainable in the long term. I know from the experience of businesses in my constituency and in the surrounding west midlands area that New Street station no longer provides the sort of entrance that Britain’s second city and the region deserve.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): As an Opposition Member, let me say that I agree not only with the hon. Lady’s specific point but with the thrust of what she says, which will be widely welcomed in my constituency.

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Ms Stuart: I am grateful for that intervention. I stress to the Minister, who may not be sufficiently aware of Birmingham politics, that for all 11 Birmingham Members to agree so thoroughly and campaign jointly on an issue is very unusual. It is a reflection of the strength of feeling on the matter.

The region has too often lost out on funding decisions of this kind. In stations around the country, from Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds Central, Liverpool Street and Paddington, we are slowly beginning to build a railway system of which we can be truly proud. The west midlands, however, has been left behind. The people of Birmingham and the west midlands feel passionate about this matter, which has received plenty of media coverage, and I am sure that it will be an election issue. It is not a matter for party politics, however, as it is not just MPs for the city, across the parties, who have come together. The city and the region have also come together to represent and fight for the needs of the city. There is much about the Conservative-Liberal city council administration of which I disapprove, but on this occasion, we are very much in support of each other and working together. We all want a station of which the city can be proud.

For example, we all want people to come shopping at the newly built Bullring, an iconic building of this thriving region. If they must first go through New Street station, however, we do ourselves a disservice. In preparation for the Adjournment debate, several Members asked me, “What do you want to do with New Street station? Do you want to bulldoze it? If you do, can I drive the first bulldozer, because I have had the misfortune of having to travel through it?” Anybody who has ever been to the station knows that we need to do something.

The Birmingham gateway proposal, which would take us forward, is currently being examined by the local planning authority, and it offers a real opportunity to make a difference to Birmingham and the west midlands. The proposals are for a light and open train station, a far cry from the dark and cramped experience at present. The proposed redevelopment would not only be a catalyst for regional growth and development, but offer an excellent return on the necessary investment. It would generate new jobs and opportunities, as well as improve pedestrian and rail links to the key parts of the city.

Moreover, the redevelopment would meet the region’s transport and urban regeneration objectives. Perhaps most importantly, it would secure all of that with the minimum of disruption for passengers and local people. The plans are being scrutinised and will be improved by the process of inquiry. It is clear that something needs to be done now before it is too late, and New Street, as the natural hub of the region, should see that investment.

I am pleased that this campaign has the support of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. During the Hodge Hill by-election, he commented that

Birmingham can no longer afford further delay. We are asking for a speedy decision. The total money needed is some £500 million, but we are asking for a commitment of £380 million of public money now. The money will
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come from three different sources—Network Rail, the local transport plan and Advantage West Midlands. In addition, we are looking for £150 million to £170 million of private sector money. What the project requires is a commitment across Whitehall and the west midlands to ensure that those various funding streams arrive in time. We need a New Street station rebuilt to serve the needs of Birmingham and the west midlands and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the strong support across parties and agencies for the proposals.

7.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this debate, and I welcome to it my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe). This is an important debate, which provides the House with the opportunity to consider the issues surrounding Birmingham New Street railway station and the action being taken by Government to address those matters. I hope that my hon. Friends will forgive me if I repeat some of the facts already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston.

Birmingham New Street is one of the most significant stations on the rail network in Great Britain. It serves the prosperous business and residential centre of what some call the second city, although as I represent a Glasgow constituency, I would not necessarily use that phrase. New Street station is, however, an equally important location for passengers changing trains.

The original station at Birmingham New Street was first established in the mid-19th century. The site was once occupied by two adjacent stations, built by rival companies. A major rebuilding scheme was undertaken in the 1960s. That produced the present station, which opened in 1967, complete with the Palisades shopping centre, built over much of the operational station. At the time of rebuilding, New Street station was handling some 640 trains a day, resulting in around 60,000 passengers a day passing through the station. It now caters for more than double that number—some 1,350 trains a day, passenger numbers also having doubled to 120,000 a day.

Business continues to increase, as witnessed, for example, on the west coast main line, where the trains operated by Virgin are now carrying 30 per cent. more passengers than before the recent upgrade to the line was implemented in September 2004. Virgin currently operates a half-hourly service to and from London. That is planned to increase to one every 20 minutes from December 2008, such is the demand for rail travel.

The station is also an important destination for other trains. It is the focal point for Virgin Cross Country’s long distance services. It is also a hub for the local and regional services of Central Trains, which play a vital role in the life of the west midlands. Trains provided by Arriva Trains Wales also serve the station on routes to and from Chester, mid-Wales and Aberystwyth.

1 Nov 2006 : Column 428

Rail plays an increasingly important role in the life of Birmingham and the west midlands. Some train services have increased business by more than 50 per cent. in the past five years alone. Indeed, rail’s share of the travel market in the west midlands has risen from 12 per cent. some 10 years ago, to nearly 20 per cent. today. There is every expectation that such rail business will increase, and we must plan accordingly. That is especially important as we consider how best to deal with the transport needs of the west midlands in the longer term.

A recent study, led by Network Rail but involving all the relevant train operators and the Department for Transport, concluded that the present rail system around Birmingham New Street could absorb a substantial volume of additional passenger traffic, sufficient to meet all medium-term and most longer-term needs. It also said that a doubling of business could be accommodated by lengthening trains—adding carriages—rather than by increasing train frequencies. New Street station could certainly accommodate longer trains, but platforms would have to be lengthened at some other stations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, the present station at New Street is 40 years old, and the need to improve its size and ambience so that it can better handle increased passenger flows is a subject that has exercised the Department, Network Rail and Birmingham city council for some time. My hon. Friend mentioned the proposal prepared by the city council and Network Rail for the Birmingham gateway scheme, which has received wide publicity.

The gateway proposal involves the provision of enhanced passenger capacity to alleviate overcrowding and facilitate long-term growth in business. There would be a much larger circulation and concourse area, with enhanced access to platforms, improved lighting and passenger facilities in general, and better access to the city centre. An integrated shopping centre would be provided, along with the opportunity for commercial development to offset overall costs.

However, all that comes at a high cost. The present figures show a need for £380 million of public funding. Of that amount, £280 million is requested from the Department for Transport, with the balance coming from the Department of Trade and Industry. An expected contribution of £140 million from the private sector would help towards the “all-up” cost of £520 million.

Although I commend the promoters for the hard work that has enabled the scheme to be designed, it represents a substantial sum and I am sure that the House would agree that we must make certain that it is the best-value way forward. Departmental officials are working hard to examine the business case presented by the city council and Network Rail that is designed to support the requirement for public funding. For example, the Department is in dialogue with the city council about the commercial risk associated with the project. The Government are not, and certainly do not want to become, the last resort for any cost overrun; nor do they want to pick up the pieces over any failed deal with the private sector.

The gateway proposals are also being considered alongside the Department’s current work on what is
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called the high-level output specification for rail, which will confirm what the Government want railways to deliver in the period from April 2009 to March 2014. An announcement, in the form of a White Paper, is likely to be made next summer.

Simply put, any scheme for New Street must be affordable. Given the significance of the gateway scheme, and its impact on the railway and on available resources, it is likely that a way forward on options for the project will be included in the statement on the high-level output specification. I hope that that answers the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston asked about the timetable for an announcement.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister has spoken about the projected cost, but I remind him that the costs of the Manchester metro are far higher. However, the shopping complex that would be placed over New Street station would provide many jobs; thus the scheme would be of far greater benefit to UK taxpayers. By integrating the project with the private sector and not relying only on the public sector, we can ensure that we get a return on the project. I accept that my hon. Friend has concerns about the private sector, but I assure him that we have gone into all those matters. As happened with the neighbouring Bullring project, improving New Street station would provide great employment and high returns locally.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but I hope that he will forgive me if I am not tempted to compare the New Street project with important transport projects elsewhere in the country. All such projects have business cost-benefit ratios attached, and some are better than others, but we should concentrate on Birmingham in this debate.

The Department is urging Birmingham city council and Network Rail to finalise work on the business case. Further information is being provided and I urge the promoters to deliver it as quickly as possible. I understand that the earliest that the promoters consider work can begin on the gateway scheme is December 2008.

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