Ms Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered step-free access at Flitwick station.
Nineteenth-century engineers thought very little of laying a railway line in a cutting through the centre of an old market town; that was no obstacle. Sadly, they thought even less about how disabled people could access the platforms in that cutting. I thought that our modern attitudes had changed and moved on, and that we were more considerate of the less able in society, but I am afraid that there is no evidence of that at Flitwick station.
My constituent Darren, who is a severely disabled man and a wheelchair user, is one of the worst affected. He cannot hope to get on a train from a station that is only a few hundred yards away from his home. I will explain a bit about Darren, who I think might be watching. Darren was a very able professional man who used Flitwick station every day to commute to work. In an act of generosity, he once helped somebody to move house, and an obstacle fell off the back of the flatbed lorry they were using while Darren was tying his shoelaces. He broke his spine and has been a paraplegic ever since, but he would still like to use Flitwick station.
I felt incredibly humbled when Darren turned up one day here at Westminster. In his mobility wheelchair, with his suction and everything else, he had decided to bring himself to Parliament to see me. The effort it took him to get here is possibly the reason why I will never give up fighting for people such as Darren to have the disabled access that they need in order to live as normal and able a commuter life as possible, so that they can get to shops and do the things that they used to do before they were unable to access Flitwick station.
I am also talking about older people, young mums with prams and people with suitcases visiting the Centre Parcs in my constituency. The local campaign to get step-free access at Flitwick station has been determined in the face of seemingly endless delays and prevarication. Particular mention has to go to Arthur Taylor of the Bedfordshire Commuters Association, to the cross-party Bedfordshire Rail Access Network and to the efforts of Flitwick Town and unitary councillors, who are sitting in the Public Gallery. I also want to mention an honourable and good friend of mine, Fiona Chapman—her successor from the ward is in the Gallery.
The hopes of so many people in Flitwick and its surrounding towns and villages were focused on the Access for All funding, but they were dashed in April when the scheme announced its results. We all thought the case for step-free access at Flitwick was strong. Over 1.5 million people use the station each year, with 4.5% growth as the local area goes through a period of sustained house building. Much more is still to come. We have seen investment in lengthening the platforms, which has happened during my time as an MP over the past 15 years, and the purchase of new trains. In fact, it is very rare for a train that does not have 12 carriages to pass through Flitwick station. However, nothing has been done to enable the disabled and elderly to use the station, despite the upgrading of platforms and train carriages.
In addition to the number of passengers, Flitwick’s case for step-free access is strengthened by the lack of alternative means of travel. Disabled people who wish to travel from Flitwick must call 24 hours in advance, which is exactly what Darren did. A taxi will be booked to take them to the nearest step-free station—at least, that is how it should work. More often than not, there will be no taxi waiting when my disabled constituents arrive at Flitwick station, despite their having telephoned 24 hours in advance. There is occasionally a taxi waiting, but it is unable to take wheelchairs. There are unfortunately few buses from Flitwick, and most of them are not wheelchair-accessible either. For a large number of people, transport options are either strictly limited or absolutely non-existent.
For all those reasons and more, Flitwick station was the top priority for Govia Thameslink Railway, the relevant train operating company, in the last round of Access for All funding—or so it said. However, the funding was not enough. Govia Thameslink Railway said Flitwick was its priority station, but apparently it is not. By comparison with Flitwick, Cricklewood station has lower footfall, lower growth and better alternatives for less-able passengers, but it was awarded money from the Access for All funding. I do not know anybody who understands the rationale for that, other than it costs less money to adapt Cricklewood station. The train operating companies and the Department for Transport decided to go for the lower hanging fruit. For them, it is a numbers game: how many stations can we adapt for how little money?
We all know that Flitwick is a geographical challenge because of where it is situated—the elevations and the number of steps that one needs to go down to reach the platforms at the station. It is obviously an engineering challenge and would therefore be slightly more expensive. However, it would not be an obstacle to the Victorian engineers who built the station—they would think nothing of being asked to make the station accessible for wheelchair users or disabled people. It would not be a challenge to Victorian engineers, who would just get on and do it, but it is apparently too much for us to adapt a station that is slightly challenging in terms of its elevation, geography and current accessibility. We all know the reasons why.
The train operating company directs all inquiries to the Department for Transport. The Access for All administrators have refused to answer any questions put to them by my constituents and other people— believe me, there have been a lot—who have inquired about why Flitwick was missed out of the programme. The fragmentation, lack of information and lack of communication between the Department of Transport, the train operating companies and the relevant interested bodies in my constituency, including Flitwick Town Council, have led to bad feelings. There was absolute frustration in my constituency, because the one station that everyone—not just in Bedfordshire, but in the entire eastern region—thought required funding and adaptation was Flitwick, due to the house building and established growth. That is not growth that we are predicting: 4.5.% growth is happening right now.
Look at our local plan and the aspirations of Central Bedfordshire Council for inward investment already deciding to come to the area, close to Flitwick station. A great deal of house building will take place close to Flitwick station. A number of new commuters are about to come and live close to it. A number of businesses are about to relocate to areas such as Henlow and others, close to Flitwick station. It is not imaginary growth. Central Bedfordshire Council was able to confirm the level of growth that we will have going forward, but the one station in the entire region that requires funding was left off.
I have spoken to the Minister about this issue in the past, and there is some confusion. The Department for Transport blames the train operating companies, and the train operating companies blame the Department for Transport. The Department says, “We adapted the stations that the train operating companies told us to adapt,” and the train operating companies say, “You were top of our list, but the Department for Transport decided not to do it.” That is the problem facing us at the moment.
I would like a clear response that my councillors, who are sitting in the Public Gallery, can take back to Flitwick, saying, “This is the situation with regard to Flitwick station. This is why it didn’t happen. This is why it is going to happen in the future, and this is when it is going to happen.”
We all understand the logistical challenge of adapting Flitwick. We all understand that we would have to go through a period when the station might even have to close for a while, and I have been told that the civil engineering problem there might even mean that the centre of Flitwick would close for a while. I do not think that we regard that as a problem, because the eventual outcome would be worth it. It is something that we could explain easily to my constituents, our residents, because the equality of access has to be there for people such as Darren.
Everyone has a right to be able to travel, in particular in an area with poor transport links—bus links and the whole transport structure are poor. Flitwick station and that Bedford-to-St Pancras line—known as “the Bedpan line”—offer a life-giving artery for people to access work, pleasure and travel in all its aspects. It is such a well used line, but an entire group of my constituents is denied those ordinary daily rights of employment, pleasure and travel that people such as me and my councillors have access to and enjoy.
At the start, I said that I would always see access for disabled people through the eyes of Darren—the eyes of a man who worked and lived the commuter life, a professional life, that is now denied him because he is unable to travel. This is not a man who wants to sit at home; this is a man who wants to get out, to go to the train station, to travel to London and to enjoy things that every able-bodied person is able to enjoy. But that is all denied him because of lack of access at Flitwick station. That is the truth of the matter. I have also seen women struggling up and down the steps with babies in prams. Despite the bus, sometimes I see people struggling up with suitcases to get taxis or on to the main street. This cannot go on for much longer.
Flitwick station is 50 miles outside London, most of my constituents are commuters and most of my disabled constituents want to work, so I now ask the Minister for some specific answers. When will it happen? Why did it not happen before? That is the question everyone is asking—why did it not happen? We need to have communicated to us today a clear trajectory towards a situation in which those people can access the travel rights that the rest of us have. At the moment, all we have is a lack of communication, as well as confusion, frustration—and, from some people, a certain amount of anger.