HC Deb 18 December 2002 vol 396 cc285-91WH 12.29 pm
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

I am grateful to have secured this timely debate. It seems all the more timely given yesterday's statement on public transport investment by the Secretary of State for Transport. I realise the irony of using words such as timely and public transport in the same breath. However, my intention is serious. I want to make a strong case for a much earlier decision to be made on the sitting of a station or halt at the Eastfields level crossing in my constituency. That decision appeared to have been taken, with the station due to open in 2004, but the idea has now been shelved indefinitely.

I am grateful to the Minister for attending to answer the debate. I hope that he can offer some hope to my constituents that they may yet see the opening of the station that they have been waiting for. He may want to make other comments about the future of public transport in less affluent areas such as the Eastfields area of Mitcham, which are disconnected from transport systems enjoyed in much more affluent areas.

I hope that the Minister will agree that the proposal for a station at Eastfields must be treated as a priority by the Strategic Rail Authority, and I urge him to use his good offices to persuade the SRA to bring Eastfields station back up the agenda and to make an early decision.

Eastfields, on the borders of Longthornton, Pollards Hill and Figges Marsh wards in the Mitcham area, has a high-density residential population as well as three schools. It has one of the largest council estates in my constituency, surrounded by streets of typical suburban semis dating from the inter-war years. It also has the two largest derelict industrial sites in the borough.

Eastfields has suffered in recent decades from the sharp rise in antisocial scourges such as graffiti, vandalism, fly tipping and abandoned cars, as well as a decline in close-knit communities and a lack of local facilities. A survey that I carried out in the area last summer, to which hundreds of local residents responded, clearly showed that people desperately want to see more facilities in their area and better transport links. Indeed, almost everyone who responded to my questionnaire said that they wanted better rail links, including a station at Eastfields and access to the Croydon to Wimbledon tram.

There can be no question but that Eastfields has suffered from not having a direct railway link, even though the construction of a station or halt at the level crossing would be straightforward. As such, it has been mooted for many years. Merton borough council is especially keen to develop the station, which would be on the line between Victoria and Mitcham junction, and would open up the area for travel to central London and rail links in Croydon.

The wards surrounding the Eastfields area are among the most deprived in the borough of Merton. It is telling that the seven most deprived wards in Merton are in my constituency, which proves my long-held opinion that Mitcham and Morden has consistently lost out to wealthier places when funds are shared out for public transport, education, health and regeneration projects. I wanted to become a Labour Member of this House to turn over that inequality, and I am here today to speak about the needs of my constituents.

I understand that, in the mapping carried out as part of Merton's neighbourhood renewal project, all the evidence showed that communities in the area that would benefit from a station at Eastfields suffered disproportionately from income deprivation, child poverty, low levels of education and attainment, poor access to health and social care, crime and disorder and low access to public transport for employment. The communities that would benefit from the station include those disadvantaged in many other respects, including elderly people as well as significant concentrations of people from ethnic minorities. As the Minister will be aware, those from ethnic minorities experience disproportionate levels of unemployment and isolation, which adversely affect their opportunities and life chances. Too many people in the eastern part of Merton share such disadvantages.

The problem is much more than the lack of a station—a transport inequality. It concerns financial inequality, health inequality, inequality in education and—plain and simple—social inequality. Eastfields school will increase its intake from 840 to 1,200 pupils per year from 2003. The infrastructure work associated with that, including new paths to and from a possible Eastfields station, is part of the planning conditions for the school's developments. As such, it will be in any plans for Eastfields station.

The proposed location is along one of the longest stretches of railway line in London without a railway station. Elderly residents of the area say that they have been promised a station there since around 1930. It is even obvious to me that the level crossing was constructed because the intention was to build a station to serve the new suburban development. However, that has never happened. People living in the Eastfields area of east Mitcham have some of the poorest access to public transport in the borough. The new station would improve access to jobs and other opportunities for residents in an area of, as I have shown, high deprivation.

The council has always been keen for there to be a station on the site, and has already modified the alignment of the adjacent Grove road to provide a drop-off point for the new station. The council's present proposals have been in existence since the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, Merton pursued the proposal with more vigour, based on the Government's policy of putting more emphasis on rail improvements. In late 1999, it commissioned Peter Brett Associates, a firm of consulting engineers with expertise in transport planning and traffic engineering, to undertake a demand and engineering feasibility study on a new station at Eastfields. The report concluded that it was feasible to construct a station. The passenger forecast and financial appraisal strongly suggested that the station would be commercially viable, and predicted that some 10,000 people would use the new station each week.

The train operating companies, Connex and Thameslink, said that services using Mitcham junction could call at the proposed station. Railtrack's 2000 network management statement for Great Britain contained an option to develop a new station at Eastfields in 2006 with Connex, the then incumbent train operator.

On 24 October 2000, the Strategic Rail Authority issued a press release on the outcome of negotiations for the South Central rail franchise, which specified the opening of a new station at Eastfields in 2004. A station at Eastfields has tremendous potential for increasing mobility for my constituents, as well as alleviating congested roads and reducing air pollution. It would also help to reinvigorate the community by increasing access to local facilities and services and to jobs further afield.

Merton council recently informed me that the Strategic Rail Authority had announced its intention to reduce the length of the South Central franchise from 20 to seven years, with the SRA handling major infrastructure investment and upgrading. That has derailed plans for a station at Eastfields, causing huge disappointment to my constituents. The council made representations to the SRA in October, asking that a station be included in the new South Central franchise. It awaits the SRA response. There are two possible stances for the SRA to take: positive, in which case the council would look to joint fund further development work; or negative, in which case the council would need to lobby more strongly. My point in securing today's debate is that the council should not have to lobby more strongly. The needs of my constituents are clear: they need and want an Eastfields station.

In my correspondence on the issue, I have been fobbed off with opaque letters. One letter from James Watson, assistant director of parliamentary and public communications at the SRA, stated: the Eastfields proposal was a commitment in the original Heads of Terms—signed in October 2000—for the proposed 20 year franchise. It was not envisaged at that time that the proposal would be progressed before 2008 and 9. As you are aware, we are now negotiating a shorter franchise of up to seven years and no infrastructure works will be taken forward under the replacement franchise. The SRA will reappraise the package of infrastructure proposals from the former proposition and will act as sponsor in taking elements forward. With our other priorities, it will take some time to consider and decide how to proceed. Eastfields station has been under consideration since about 1930, and I hope that the SRA will not take another 70 years to reach a conclusion.

I can do no more than to quote the eloquent words of my constituent, Mr. Graham Barker of Edgehill road in Mitcham. He wrote: I feel that getting into town is a mission as there is no direct rail link, underground, tram or bus that serves the city directly from this area of Mitcham … I'm sure I speak for the majority of local residents when I say that we really do need the station built at Eastfields without further delay. I conclude by asking the Minister to look into the situation with a view to helping to expedite the creation of a station at Eastfields. I ask him to meet me and representatives of Merton council—and perhaps the SRA, if it can find time among its priorities—to discuss the future of the project. Make no mistake: the project must have a future. It is a future that my constituents are depending on and have been half-promised, and it will go a long way to restoring their faith in our transport system.

12.40 pm
The Parliamentary Linder-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate and on the powerful way in which she spoke up for her constituents. I fully appreciate what she said about inequalities and about wanting to improve life for her constituents. Public transport is important for those who want to get to work, and also for leisure and pleasure. I appreciate that in areas where such a transport system is lacking, people can be left out on a limb.

My hon. Friend raised a number of other matters to do with inequalities, but I shall not be tempted to debate those today. However, I shall try to put into context any decision that may be made about the proposed Eastfields station. I appreciate that a station has been on the cards since the 1930s. I sometimes visit places waiting for a bypass. The longest wait that I came across was 80 years, but it came about at last.

My hon. Friend asked about a meeting. I would be delighted to meet her and to discuss the issues with all the relevant parties to find a way forward.

I shall say a few words about the decision-making process and about how the SRA has to prioritise its spending. The SRA is fully accountable to Ministers and Parliament. Its job is to promote the use of the railway network for passengers and goods, to secure the development of the railway system, and to contribute to the development of an integrated transport system for both passengers and goods.

The authority works to directions and guidance, given by the Secretary of State, that clearly define its roles and duties. The directions and guidance require the SRA to promote efficiency and economy and set 12 main objectives. Its two principal objectives are to work with the rail industry to achieve substantial lasting improvements in performance and to work to deliver the targets in the 10-year plan for transport.

I understand that it is not possible for the authority to confirm whether the proposed station at Eastfields will be progressed. The decision has not yet been made, and other priorities must take precedence, including negotiating the South Central franchise on the new seven-year basis, replacing the mark I slam-door trains and addressing the important issue of the power supply.

It may help if I set out the history of the South Central franchise replacement process to explain how we have arrived at the position that we are in today. There have been significant changes in the rail industry over the period subsequent to the refranchising process.

The South Central franchise was originally let to Connex Transport UK Ltd. in 1996 and, under the instructions of the Deputy Prime Minister, the shadow Strategic Rail Authority began the process of retendering the franchise. At the time, it was envisaged that franchises would be let on contracts lasting between 10 and 20 years, with franchisees making a strong commitment to invest in new projects.

In March 2000, the authority announced that two bidders, Connex and GoVia, had been shortlisted to compete for the franchise. Following submission and review of its best and final offers, the authority announced in October 2000 that it had signed heads of terms with Go Via as the preferred counterparty for the new franchise.

Heads of terms were based on a franchise of up to 20 years. An investment programme valued at £1.5 billion was proposed to introduce new trains and to upgrade track and stations. The programme included the proposed new station at Eastfields. GoVia planned that the station and other infrastructure enhancements would be delivered through a special purpose vehicle. It is important to note that, at that time, the scheme was only at the feasibility stage of development, with the final scope and costings yet to be finalised.

Of course, October 2000 was a critical month not only for South Central but for the whole rail industry. The Hatfield derailment on 17 October put the rail industry, particularly Railtrack, under intense scrutiny. The repercussions of the tragedy were widespread and long lasting. An unprecedented number of speed restrictions were imposed across the country as safety checks were carried out. Services were disrupted for many months. Railtrack's competence as custodian of the network infrastructure was widely questioned. The floundering project to upgrade the west coast main line added fuel to the debate. The project was behind time and over budget, largely because, as the company admitted, there was a serious lack of understanding of the state of Railtrack's assets and the scale of work needed to renew them. In the eyes of many, the project became symbolic of the company's mismanagement.

The problems that the industry, especially Railtrack, faced following Hatfield came to a head at the end of 2001. There was a crisis of confidence in the railways, both in the minds of the public and in the industry as a whole. In October 2001, Railtrack was placed in administration, an event that has been debated at length in this Chamber and in the House. In October of this year, the not-for-dividend company, Network Rail, was established in Railtrack's place. That change was essential for the recovery and development of our railways. Let us remember that it is only 10 weeks since Network Rail became the owner of the railway infrastructure. The company envisages an initial 18-month intensive programme to stabilise the business and to analyse the costs and causes of cost overruns in Railtrack. Network Rail intends to complete the process of building a full asset register of the rail network. Clearly, it will take time to turn the business around.

Following Hatfield, arrangements had been made to focus efforts on operations, maintenance and the renewal of the network, and to make the Strategic Rail Authority, which was formally established in February 2001, sponsor of the development of projects to enhance or upgrade the existing network. Network Rail is now taking forward Railtrack's new maintenance programme to improve its relationship with contractors and to enable it to have tighter control over the cost and quality of their work. There will be stability in the industry under the leadership of the Strategic Rail Authority and improved management of the network under Network Rail.

By this time, GoVia had taken over the operation of the South Central services from Connex, while negotiations for a new 20-year franchise continued. The negotiations had to be halted because of the many uncertainties in the industry—most notably, uncertainties arising from Railtrack's administration, but also uncertainties about particular projects such as Thameslink 2000, which had a bearing on South Central. In those circumstances, it was impossible to reach an affordable, value-for-money deal. There were too many contingencies for which allowances would have to be made. Therefore, it was necessary to redefine the commercial basis and structure of the deal.

In August 2002, the Strategic Rail Authority announced that agreement had been reached in principle on a new approach for the South Central franchise. The approach is consistent with the wider policy changes announced on 6 November. A key feature of the policy is that franchises are not the appropriate vehicles for taking forward major capital investment. Infrastructure enhancements will generally be pursued separately by the Strategic Rail Authority in partnership with the private sector, including Network Rail.

The new South Central franchise agreement being negotiated with GoVia is for a term of up to seven years, subject to the absolute right of the Strategic Rail Authority to terminate it after five years. The new franchise will deliver new rolling stock valued at £900 million and depot improvements valued at £60 million. Given the shorter length of the franchise and the new approach to franchising and infrastructure enhancements, the infrastructure upgrades originally planned as part of a 20-year franchise proposition will not be part of the new franchise.

The Strategic Rail Authority will reappraise the package of infrastructure proposals from the former 20-year proposition and take a view on which elements it will progress as sponsor. The reappraisal is not a current priority for the authority. It will be undertaken during the next year. The outcome will depend on the value for money of the proposals compared with others that are competing for limited funds.

Where new stations are proposed, other considerations, such as environmental and planning issues, will have to be taken into account. A Transport and Works Act 1992 order may be required for construction, access and land acquisition. Operational effects also need to be considered. Of course, trains stopping at a new station add time to a journey— typically several minutes. The impact on capacity and performances also needs to be assessed.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden feels very passionately on this issue. She is right to do so and, as I have said, she spoke powerfully about the need for improved transport links in her constituency. I know that she will find some of what I have said disappointing. However, I hope that she will understand and accept my explanation of why the prospect of a new station at Eastfields is currently uncertain and must remain so until a reassessment can be carried out by the Strategic Rail Authority. I assure her that the authority is currently preparing its next strategic plan for publication in January.

Siobhain McDonagh

In the event that the SRA does not do the job quickly, when we reach the 80th anniversary of the promise of a halt or station, will the people of Mitcham finally get their station as a reward for their patience?

Mr. Jamieson

That will depend on some of the issues that I have outlined in the debate. It will fall within the priorities. However, I hope that in the coming year there will be a full assessment of the scheme, along with the other priorities. I certainly hope that my hon. Friend's constituents will not have to wait as long as 80 years. Still, she will appreciate that there are many competing demands on the budget for infrastructure improvements. If she wants to air the issues in a meeting attended by some of her constituents and other parties, I should be pleased to meet them.