[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair)
Before we begin, I would like to remind Members that Mr Speaker encourages us all to observe social distancing and to wear face-masks.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of reopening the Leamside Line.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all Members in attendance. I can say that there are colleagues here today just as passionate as I am on this subject, and I look forward to hearing their contributions. It is important to emphasise from the outset the unity on this issue in the north-east from those on all sides of the political spectrum, and from the business community, the transport sector, local authorities and the general public.
I would like to outline the vision for the Leamside Line. It has three key purposes. The first is local: it would allow for an expansion of the Tyne and Wear Metro through the South of Tyne and Wearside loop, which would connect Washington’s 70,000 residents to the system. The second is regional: it would open up passenger rail services for the whole Leamside corridor and its population of 124,000 people, from Ferryhill to Pelaw. It connects that population, and the 1 million people with indirect access to the line, to Tyneside, Wearside, Durham and Teesside. It would revolutionise transport across the region. The final is national: it would support east coast main line capacity for passenger and vital freight services, as well as national rail connectivity. Those three aspects form the overall strategic ambitions for the reopening of the line.
I am incredibly happy to have secured this very timely debate, following a huge event on Friday 4 February 2022, in which I visited three strategic points along the line to visualise where it will one day run, along with colleagues who are present today, local authority leaders, and representatives from: Transport North East, led by Tobyn Hughes; the Northern Powerhouse Partnership; the North East local enterprise partnership; and the North East England chamber of commerce.
Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this really important debate. I was pleased to join my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) at Follingsby in Gateshead to show the unity on proceeding with this line, which makes excellent sense for all kinds of reasons.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for joining us, although it was freezing. We were in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who was unable to join us but did have representatives present.
The next location we visited was in my patch, in Washington. It was in the shadow of Penshaw monument, near the magnificent Victoria viaduct, which stretches over what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of Wearside. The viaduct was built in 1838, and it shows the scale of the engineering skill, the genius, the hard work and, through its beauty, the hedonism that characterised the region at that time, which was the powerhouse of global Great Britain. It is a shame to see such a feat of engineering go unused. It is incredible, however, to learn that with minimal reinforcements, the viaduct will be ready to take rail services, some 200 years after it was built.
The last time a train crossed that bridge was in 1992, when the line was mothballed after serving for around 30 years as a diversionary route for the east coast main line. It even took the Queen’s train across the Wear. However, it had been in infrequent use since 1963, when the infamous Beeching cuts were made, and Washington station has not been used since.
Washington was a very different place at that time. It was populated mostly by families who were dependent for work on the many pits that dot the area, or the chemical works. In 1963, when the rail link was taken away, a Government White Paper proposed that Washington be developed as a mark II new town, in order to stimulate faster progress and raise the scale and quality of the region’s urban development.
Washington was developed as a series of villages near-equidistant from Sunderland, Newcastle and Durham, and new industries, especially the automotive industry, thrived there. Hon. Members will be aware that Nissan is in my constituency. We should be careful not to romanticise or become overly nostalgic about how life was then, but there was a determined national policy and vision for the development of the town, and properly funded public services made the town prosperous. Graeme Bell, who worked on the town development corporation in the 1960s, wrote in 2019:
“Our brief for Washington New Town was to create ‘a town in which people want to live’. So simple, so complex. We started with the consultant’s masterplan which envisaged a place where the car was king. … a grid of dual carriageways with grade-separated junctions was to criss-cross the countryside to enable the 50,000 planned population to travel between home, work and play. This was to be Los Angeles-on-the-Wear!
A fore-runner of the design for Milton Keynes, the idea was that by taking the traffic out of the built-up areas, car-free spaces could be created where families and particularly children could safely walk to school, play and socialise. Within the grid were also to be factories and offices – jobs that were crucial to the success of Washington – and shops and parks, so residents wouldn’t need to travel great distances to live a good life.”
Those who live in Washington, or live and work around Washington, can see that vision of how it was intended to be. The latter part of the vision, however, was dismantled as industries such as the pits and the chemical works were decimated, and policies led to the loss of the good public services that fulfil the needs of modern life. The story of how we moved into that situation is one that we all know well.
Washington is now home to a number of areas identified as left-behind neighbourhoods, where social infrastructure is lacking. Residents have markedly worse socioeconomic outcomes than the residents of other equally deprived areas. The all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods notes that “steady bus service decline” and low car ownership,
“combined with rail closures have led to these places being disconnected and cut off from essential services and amenities”.
This Chamber recently heard about the major cuts to Tyne and Wear bus services in a debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). Those cuts now seem inevitable as covid-19 funding unwinds. With our local authorities being told to bear the brunt of keeping our public services afloat, I worry that residents dependent on those services risk being stranded. Meanwhile, 40% of households in left-behind neighbourhoods have no car; in England, the average is 26%.
Those circumstances make things even harder for residents of Washington, which, as I mentioned, was built at the dawn of the automotive age. The design of the town, combined with the current insufficient provision, means that the demands of modern society are not being met. Residents are being left behind; like populations in other towns across the country, they have to get out to get on. Great jobs, especially in the car industry, are on the doorstep, but they are highly competitive, and not all of them are accessible to those who live closest to them. Young people often find themselves having to move to neighbouring cities for good jobs, and that creates a de facto brain drain. For those who do not make it out, do not drive and cannot make the 40-minute bus journey into an education centre, opportunity is therefore stifled.
Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this really important debate. She expresses very eloquently the real problem for people in our area: if they do not have a car, their chances of getting the employment that they really want are cut massively. By not providing public transport and not agreeing to Labour’s plans, this Government are strangling opportunity for people in the north-east.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments; she is right.
Leamside is the solution to these transport and connectivity problems. I welcome the sentiment behind the Government’s “Levelling Up” White Paper, published last week; it aims to level up the left behind, but the sentiment simply did not translate into tangible, real-world differences on the scale needed to level up the places that colleagues here and I represent. Connectivity matters. It is all about access. For the communities up and down this stretch of line, it is about access to education, jobs, business and leisure. It aids and expands access to economic benefits, health options, educational assets and cultural capital.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate. I am the Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central—not only the place, but the mainline train station of the same name. Does she agree that the Leamside line would give people from across the region access to Newcastle institutions, such as Newcastle College and Newcastle University, and that it would also give those institutions access to the wider region? The interconnectivity of which she talks is so important economically, and in creating a critical mass of energy, innovation and skills that will allow our economy to thrive.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: the connectivity works both ways. This is not just about people being able to get out of Washington; it is about people across the region being able to come into Washington and see everything that Washington, Sunderland, South Tyneside, Durham, Gateshead and the whole region has to offer. This connectivity will mean that people from further afield can come to those places and access the cultural capital that we have to offer, as well as leisure and employment opportunities.
Paul Howell (Sedgefield) (Con)
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. Does she agree that the Leamside line is important as a core piece of transport, but needs to be part of a joined-up picture? There are fantastic job opportunities on the line, but there need to be buses to connect them, and there needs to be a holistic solution.
I agree. That is why this debate links so well with the debate on buses that we had here a few weeks ago. We need the extra connectivity. The scheme is all very well for people who live near the Leamside line, but lots of people do not. They will need the whole passenger transport network to connect and link up.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said, the reopening of the line would benefit the whole region; that is indicated by the presence here of non-Leamside line MPs. The line would give young apprentices who cannot afford a car access to Nissan and the International Advanced Manufacturing Park; it would enable workers to get to the two massive Amazon sites along the line; and it would give access to Doxford International Business Park and Integra 61 in Durham. All these employment centres provide over 25,000 jobs, and are growing.
Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
As the hon. Lady will know, my constituency has received massive investment—Treasury jobs, the Darlington Economic Campus and a whole host of other civil service jobs. Does she agree that reopening the Leamside line would open up those job opportunities to her constituents, who could travel to Darlington?
I agree. People should be able to reach the jobs easily, wherever they are—and not just those who can afford a car. Often the car comes after the job; people need to be able to get to the job first.
Leamside is not only a solution to a problem, but an opportunity for the whole north-east. Every journey on the Metro by a commuter, shopper or tourist adds an average of £8.50 to the economy. Think of the boost that Leamside would give to the South Tyneside and Wearside Metro loop, even without the wider Leamside line. There are three benefits to this line, and the Metro is just one. This is a win, win, win, as I constantly say. It would mean that people lived and spent money in these local communities. It would change the socioeconomic future of the whole north-east. As Henri Murison said, it is vital for the whole northern powerhouse.
Levelling up the left-behind takes money, but it is question of priorities. Where our high streets are struggling, it is because the local economy is struggling unaided. Where our communities are declining, it is because the services that bind them together are being allowed to fall into disrepair. Where chances for generations of young people are being slashed, it is because the barriers to opportunities are allowed to continue to exist. These are political choices, but they can be addressed and reversed, just as the mothballing of the Leamside line can be reversed.
Before 1992, the line was used for freight purposes, which helped the east coast main line. The Minister will know that the Leamside line has the potential to extend capacity by some 50% on a vital, but highly congested, stretch of the east coast main line—the artery that links the north to Scotland.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. Does she agree that the Leamside line has the potential to provide resilience to the east coast main line? For a long stretch, there are just two tracks, and if anything goes wrong there, the connection between England and Scotland is effectively stopped.
I absolutely agree. As someone who has travelled up and down that line for almost 17 years, I know that when something goes wrong on that stretch and trains are stuck higher up the line, the trains cannot get to Newcastle. The whole thing then falls apart, as all of us who travel down that line know.
There is a comprehensive need for the Leamside line to be reopened—for national, regional and local purposes. Again, I stress the north-east unity—the Minister will hear that unity today—and the joint voice calling for the Leamside line to be reopened. When I took my seat in 2005, I quickly got to grips with this campaign, its importance, and the word “conurbation”. Washington is one of the largest conurbations in the UK without a rail or rapid transit link—I constantly mention that small fact.
I have presented five petitions to the House over 17 years, sent countless letters to the Department for Transport and the Minister’s predecessors, submitted evidence following a call for evidence on light rail, and recently co-sponsored three bids to the restoring your railway fund with the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), so it is fair to say that this means a lot to me. I am very proud of the cross-party nature of this campaign, both at local authority level and here in this House.
Where are we now? Leamside has featured as a significant element of previous local and current regional transport plans, including the 2021 North East transport plan and Transport for the North’s statutory advice. While the disappointing integrated rail plan in effect ruled out Government investment in the Leamside line for east coast main line purposes, the case remains strong.
I appreciate that the integrated rail plan indicated that the reinstatement of the Leamside line could be part of a devolution deal, but I believe it absolutely should be part of any forthcoming devolution deal. The hon. Member for Sedgefield and I discussed this with the Minister when we met earlier. However, until that deal is on the table, I do not want to see those promises used to kick the can down the road. I want Government co-operation in making the Leamside line a reality in the meantime. That means listening, as working with others, and, ultimately, financially helping with the steps needed to get there.
The north east joint transport committee has taken on the Government’s feedback, and is developing the umbrella strategic business case in phases. It has secured £100,000 in funding and is commissioning a strategic outline business case for the Metro loop element of the line.
We are taking matters into our own hands; the north-east is taking steps to achieve its ambitions, but it can only take itself so far, because our local authorities continue to be starved of cash. A project as significant and game-changing as the Leamside line will eventually need to be funded by central Government. Let us not beat about the bush: this is a very expensive piece of infrastructure, but it is needed and very much wanted.
I hope this debate shows the weight behind the will for the reinstatement of the Leamside line. I hope that, ultimately, the Government will listen to the north-east and match their rhetoric on levelling up with their commitment. The north-east is making inroads on reaching its ambitions. We hope that the Government will work with us to realise the potential of the Leamside corridor communities, secure a better future for the north-east, and future-proof national infrastructure by supporting the reopening of the Leamside line as soon as possible.