Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Jan 2007 : Column 513WH—continued

Before I finish, I will touch on some of the wider issues of economic growth and governance in the area.
24 Jan 2007 : Column 514WH
The concept of city regions seems to have gained great prominence during the past year. That is a concept that I fully support and subscribe to. Major cities, such as Manchester, have an economic footprint way beyond their city boundaries. Allowing greater and more efficient movement of people, goods and ideas across Greater Manchester will allow more communities to benefit from proximity to the city centre. However, although the economic footprint of the city is large, it is uneven, and there is much that could be done on transport, and local decision making on transport, to resolve that.

As I said, the boroughs affected by the proposed closure of the stations are now fully supporting the concept of a direct rail service to the city centre. In fact, the 10 metropolitan borough councils of Greater Manchester have a good track record of co-operation across the city region, including on transport.

Through the GMPTA we have brought improvements to local transport in Greater Manchester through better use of buses and the Metrolink. For example, since the beginning of the free bus passes for pensioners scheme, the GMPTA has allowed pass holders in Greater Manchester to use buses, trains and the Metrolink to travel across the conurbation. Greater local control over transport is vital. That is recognised by the Northwest Development Agency and by the Government in the local government White Paper.

Ms Barlow: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Does he agree that the current debate on local government reforms would provide an excellent opportunity to explore devolving more decisions on local transport to regional authorities?

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that we are talking about a fairly narrow subject: the proposed closure of Reddish South and Denton stations. I would be grateful if they could keep close to that brief.

Andrew Gwynne: I support what my hon. Friend has said about more power for local authorities over transport issues. That is an important issue in the campaign to save Reddish South and Denton stations. City transport, however, is not simply about trams and buses; it is also about rail commuter lines. The scheme that I have proposed will allow much greater use of a currently underused line and improve commuter rail links for huge swathes of south-east Greater Manchester.

Like many major cities, Greater Manchester has higher rates of worklessness, deprivation and poverty than the national average. Better transport links from those pockets of deprivation, in which parts of both Reddish and Denton can be included, would provide my constituents with access to the world class industries and employment opportunities on offer in the city centre and beyond.

The 2003 Department for Transport document “Evaluation of the Wider Benefits of Transport Improvements” considered the employment consequences of improved transport in London and the south-east. The study found that

While that study focused upon London and the south-east, I believe that it also supports my
24 Jan 2007 : Column 515WH
proposition, which is that the residents of Denton and Reddish would have enhanced employment prospects if their railway stations gave them convenient access to the opportunities prevalent in the city centre. In fact, the Government and the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive are rightly spending almost £1 billion on new tracks and stations so that other residents in Greater Manchester have Metrolink access to the city centre. With no prospect of Metrolink, my constituents in Reddish and Denton have the tracks and the stations, but they do not, as yet, have the local services.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the line and stations have a future that fits in perfectly with the SEMMMS study and the transport needs of this part of Greater Manchester. My proposals have all-party support, cross-borough support and passenger transport authority support, and they make sense. I have already written to the Minister and discussed these matters privately with him, but I also wanted to put this issue on the public record. I have requested that the Minister considers meeting a small delegation from Stockport and Tameside to discuss my proposals and our predicament further.

I was delighted when my hon. Friend was appointed to his post. He has a local public transport background, and he cares for these issues. I fully support the work of his Department to enhance local control over local public transport, and I hope that the widespread support that this proposal enjoys is taken seriously. We are seeking an assurance from him that the Network Rail route utilisation strategy exercise is not a foregone conclusion, and that our counter-proposal, and any other ideas, will be given proper and detailed consideration. I hope that that is the case and that we have a real chance of creating a vital rail link, and saving Denton and Reddish South stations in the process.

4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): It is good to see you again after such a short time, Mr. Atkinson. I had imagined that I was the most regular attendee in this Chamber until I saw that you were here again.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing the debate and on the extremely powerful and thoughtful case he has made on behalf of his constituents. He has clearly given a great deal of thought to the subject and I commend him. I hope to be able in the short time available to me to respond to the points that have been raised.

From the outset I should make it clear that no formal application for the closure of Reddish South and Denton stations has been made and that closure is only one of several options being considered for the future of the route. I can confirm, in response to one of his later points, that closure is not a foregone conclusion. As I will explain later, any application would have to meet strict criteria, and a view on whether these procedures should be brought into effect would initially be sought from the Secretary of State for Transport.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned, Reddish South and Denton stations are currently served by one train a week, which runs on Saturday mornings from
24 Jan 2007 : Column 516WH
Stockport to Stalybridge. Until the early 1990s, the service was frequent, as it was used as the link to allow connections between the west coast main line inter-city services on to the services between Manchester Victoria and destinations across the Pennines in Yorkshire and to the east coast. The diversion of the services now known as TransPennine into Manchester Piccadilly provided a direct connection and therefore removed the prime need for the frequent service via Reddish South and Denton stations, as my hon. Friend is aware. Low passenger use from those intermediate stations at the time did not warrant the retention of a frequent service. I am informed, and my hon. Friend has confirmed this afternoon, that the current service is mainly patronised by railway enthusiasts—I do not mean that term in any pejorative sense. The minimal or parliamentary service was retained, as it was not considered appropriate to close the line at that time. We now need to consider the future of rail services as a whole in the north-west, and studies such as SEMMMS will be taken into account.

Regional planning assessments for the north-east, north-west and west midlands have already been published, and assessments for the east midlands, Thames valley and south-west will follow soon. The whole country will be covered by the end of this year. Each assessment asks a simple but far-reaching question: over the next 20 years, what regional and economic development can we expect and how can the railway best respond and contribute to that? Using the RPAs, the Department is leading that process of forecasting and consulting to try to deliver a consensus not about whether to grow our railways, but about how best to do so.

As part of its future planning process, Network Rail has been producing route utilisation strategies, or RUSs. Those set out Network Rail’s strategies for the future of the railways in Britain area by area. The strategies are produced in a highly consultative and inclusive way, involving train and freight operators, passenger representatives, local authorities and others. As such, they should be considered a product not just of Network Rail, but of the whole railway industry.

In general, the railway in the north-west is successful and many routes are busy. Punctuality improvements have led to passenger numbers increasing in recent years. The strategy therefore considers areas where growth in passenger demand may require increased capacity, with longer trains, more trains or an additional platform, at Manchester airport station, for example. Opportunities for improved interchange with the Manchester Metrolink system are also being considered.

The consultation document for the north-west RUS was published in November 2006, with the consultation period running until 5 January this year. The consultation document included several options for the route and recommended that Reddish South and Denton stations be closed. It also included options for diverting additional services along the route, but those would not call at intermediate stations. Stakeholders and other groups in the Denton and Reddish South area will have had an opportunity to comment on the Network Rail options during the consultation period. The responses to the north-west RUS consultation document will now be considered by Network Rail,
24 Jan 2007 : Column 517WH
and it is planned to introduce the RUS in April or May of this year. That is why the publication this year of our high-level output specification—that trips off the tongue very neatly—or HLOS and associated budgets and framework will be so important.

Let me set that in context. Since the mid-1990s, passenger demand has risen at about 3 per cent. every year and freight demand has grown at a similar pace. Significant investment in rail has taken place, but that has not always been well managed or prioritised. The cost of the railway infrastructure escalated unacceptably under Railtrack, and we took action to stabilise that with the creation of Network Rail. The Government have taken charge of setting the strategy for the railway, while Network Rail has been given clear responsibility for operating the network and for performance. Track and train companies are being brought closer together.

The rail strategy that we publish this summer will establish our long-term plan for the industry, but a plan is, of course, no good without the means to deliver it. That is why our strategy will be underpinned by the HLOS, which will set out the improvements in safety, reliability and, crucially, capacity that we wish to buy over the five years from 2009 to 2014. That will be accompanied by a five-year budget—the statement of funds available—and it will be consulted on. The Office of Rail Regulation will scrutinise the output specification to ensure that it can be fairly expected of Network Rail to deliver that within the funds made available.

The Department for Transport will work with Network Rail and the train operators to ensure that changes to train services are procured at an affordable price at the right time. It will be the Government who decide what they wish to buy from the railways and the level of public sector funding that is available. Within that framework, the ORR will determine and price the outputs that Network Rail will be obliged to deliver, and we will make clear to everyone what railway expansion we seek to buy.

Should any formal proposal be made for the withdrawal of services from Reddish South and Denton stations, the railway closure process as specified in the Railways Act 2005 will come into play. I shall explain how the process would work. Under the Act, closures can be proposed by a rail funding authority or a train or network operating company. The RFAs specified in the 2005 Act are the Secretary of State for Transport, Scottish Ministers, the National Assembly for Wales, the English passenger transport authorities and the Mayor of London.

When a train or network operating company proposes a closure, a view on whether it should be brought into effect must be taken by the relevant national authority—either the Secretary of State or Scottish Ministers. Proposals by operators and RFAs require ratification by the ORR. In their considerations RFAs and operators will take into account a wide range of matters, some of which can be expressed in quantifiable value-for-money assessments. The closure guidance sets out an objective test that must be satisfied if closure is to be permitted. In brief, the test ensures that a closure cannot be pursued in England, Scotland or Wales if the benefit to cost ratio of
24 Jan 2007 : Column 518WH
retaining the service, station or network is 1.5 or more. Where the closure proposal comes from a train or network operating company in relation to a station or network, the operator must carry out an appraisal in accordance with the guidance before submitting it to the national authority, which will then evaluate the appraisal as part of its consideration of the proposal.

Schedule 7 to the 2005 Act sets out the requirements on how a consultation about a closure proposal must be initiated, which I hope will give some comfort to my hon. Friend with regard to what may be planned for the stations in his constituency. The schedule also states that the consultation should be carried out in line with the closures guidance. When initiating a consultation, the 2005 Act requires: that a notice be published with details of the proposal for two successive weeks in a local newspaper circulating in the area affected by the closure and two national newspapers; that the notice sets out the date when it is proposed that the services in question are withdrawn or the network or station closed, as well as other details of the proposal and an address where the initial assessment following the closures guidance and a summary of the results of the assessment can be obtained, and the fees payable, if any, for a copy of the assessment and summary. There will be questions on this afterwards.

The 2005 Act also requires that views on the proposal should be sent to the organisation carrying out the consultation by a date at least 12 weeks after the date of the second notice published in local and national newspapers, and that copies of the notice must also be published at stations affected by the proposal. The following organisations must be sent a copy of the notice and a summary of the results of the initial assessment: the relevant operator; the relevant national authority; the National Assembly for Wales, if the proposal affects Wales—which, of course, this one does not; the Mayor of London, if the proposal affects Greater London; every passenger transport executive whose area is affected; every local authority in whose area people might be affected; the Rail Passengers Council, more popularly known as Passenger Focus; all RFAs party to financial arrangements that may be affected by the proposal; all bodies providing railway services that are affected; all bodies providing station services affected by the proposal; and any organisation designated by the Secretary of State as representing the interests of passengers. It is clear that the closure process is very long. It intended to be that way so that consultation is maximised.

To conclude, Network Rail has produced the route utilisation strategy for the north-west to set out its views on the future of rail services in the area. My hon. Friend should be assured that that does not constitute any formal proposal for the closure of Denton or Reddish South stations and, should a formal proposal be put forward, ample opportunity for consultation will be provided. Studies such as the south-east Manchester multi-modal study will be taken into account. Neither is the strategy an opening of the floodgates for network-wide closures. As a result of this debate, I am sure that Network Rail will appreciate the degree of concern about the matter, and consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said when assessing the results of its route utilisation strategy.

24 Jan 2007 : Column 519WH

Locally Produced Food (Somerset)

4.30 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I am grateful and delighted to have secured this debate, which is important for Somerset. Let me say at the outset that the other Members of Parliament from Somerset would all have liked to be here. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) is in his place, and I am told that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) might turn up, but the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) would also have liked to be here to discuss what is an incredibly important issue to us.

Local food is the lifeblood of Somerset and its economy, because we have hundreds of small producers. To paraphrase the famous sayings uttered by the well known Thomas Cranmer in 1549—even you might not remember that, Mr. Atkinson—“You are what you eat.” That was sensible advice at the time, and hon. Members can see that I am living testament to the excellent Somerset produce.

Our county has only two significant industries—tourism and agriculture. The first is subject to the whims of the weather and how many euros one can get to the pound. The second is forced to dance to the tune of Whitehall, Brussels and, I am afraid, major supermarkets. Both those industries are firmly and at all levels tied up with local food. Many of the visitors who pick Somerset for their summer holidays come deliberately to sample our local fare. We have cheeses like no others in Britain, fruit and veg that are the envy of everyone and, dare I say it, cider to die for; indeed, if one drinks too much, one might actually die of it, of course. The excellence of local produce is infectious. I have been known to queue for more than an hour just to buy my favourite local bread. I am afraid that that might be a testimony to my tummy. Merely mentioning it brings back a slightly warm aroma.

Somerset farmers have fine-tuned their production to meet the growing market. I had little idea how extensive the market was until my wife Jill started making jam and selling it. She started by selling just a few pots in farmers’ markets. Then she sold a few dozen, and now she sells a few hundred. Even in our little village, whose population is tiny, there is a lucrative jam industry, but it does not hit one in the eye and people do not know about it because there are no ugly industrial units. From the humblest domestic kitchens across the county, mouth-watering goodies are being produced. Many other small organisations are producing ceramics and all sorts of other things.

I intended to offer the Minister a jar of Jill’s latest recipe—I think that I might have to declare her jam as an interest—but temptation got the better of me. However, as the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells, who is just coming to his place, can see, I have brought a jar of mincemeat made by one of my constituents. Unfortunately, it is half-empty because my son and I got the better of it and removed half the pot.

It is important to say that the local food industry is vital. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that jam making is one of the highest turnover, high-profit elements of a huge, hidden economic power house. We
24 Jan 2007 : Column 520WH
are talking about millions of pounds in Somerset and hundreds of millions in the country’s economy. The industry is a giant money-making machine, but it does not roar like a giant, because its integral parts are mostly tiny, starting with one-woman or one-man businesses.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I am full of admiration for the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Following his mention of cider and his point about the economic importance of local produce, I want to draw attention to some of the producers in my constituency. Cumulatively, Sheppy’s cider, Exmoor Ales and Cotleigh Brewery employ 25 or 30 people, so they not only make first-class products but are an important part of the local economy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will expand on that point.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am a living testament to both Cotleigh Brewery and Sheppy’s cider. I recently had the great delight of dining with the owner of Cotleigh Brewery—a well-known local, who is a Swede.

Mr. Browne: Fred.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The hon. Gentleman gives me a reminder. The produce of that phenomenal brewery has been tasted in the House of Commons and was very well received by hon. Members.

However, I did not initiate this debate just to sing the praises of the producers or to urge fellow hon. Members to get stuck into Jill’s jam or anything else. There is a serious issue. The more I see of local food production, the more concerned I become about the haphazard manner in which such a vulnerable industry is nurtured. The other day, for example, the nice people from Business Link—and I mean that—got hold of my wife, metaphorically speaking. Business Link is indirectly funded by the Government, and it is in business to help business flourish—that might sound obvious, but I shall come on to that point.

That objective is fine if it works, but Business Link had called to help Jill with setting up a website for her jam. She was stuck up to the midriff in simmering marmalade at the time. No offence to the guy—he was very nice—but the idea was not practical to her, because she did not have time to concentrate on it. It is impossible to navigate the worldwide web with a wooden spoon dripping with jam, but the real-life Business Link angel was there to see her through the red tape. If he had done that and that alone, that would have been much better. I have talked to people since then and they have all said the same thing. Why can Business Link not help with the red tape?

The point that I am making is not a criticism—please do not think that. It is a practical observation of the situation. I get the distinct impression that—I say this advisedly—many organisations that are established to help small businesses have no concept of how many small business there are. Perhaps we as hon. Members are guilty of using the phrase “small is beautiful”, but not recognising the value of “tiny”, because they are not mutually exclusive.

Next Section Index Home Page