Jim McMahon – 2018 Speech on the Greater Manchester Metrolink

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim McMahon, the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, in the House of Commons on 20 March 2018.

Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab/Co-op) Hold on to your seat, Mr Deputy Speaker, while I take you through the history of Greater Manchester’s tram network. [Interruption.] We could have two hours on this, but if it is any help, I promise not to take us anywhere near that—unless there is trouble on the line and we get delayed.

Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab) If my hon. Friend is going to give us a history of Manchester’s tram network, which I look forward to, will he join me in paying tribute to the man described as “Mr Metrolink” by the Manchester Evening News—Councillor Andrew Fender, without whom we might not have a Metrolink system at all, and who stands down from Manchester City Council in May after 41 years of dedicated public service?

Jim McMahon Councillor Fender has been a real transport inspiration for many people in Greater Manchester. He is actually a very quiet and reserved character; he is not somebody who grandstands—who seeks attention. He works in the background and diligently gets on and does the work that is very complicated, often very technical, and requires a lot of time and dedication. I have absolutely no doubt that without the time that he put in to transport in Greater Manchester—not just the tram system but the bus network, and cycling routes especially—it would not be as advanced as it is. I think that is a very fitting tribute. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

Greater Manchester’s tram network opened in 1992 and is now the UK’s biggest light rail network. It is essential to Greater Manchester’s economy. We know how important transport is. It is important to get people from A to B, but it is also essential to do so efficiently, to make sure that we reduce congestion, that people can get to work affordably, and that there are routes that take people where they need to go for their employment or for leisure. People vote with their feet. The light rail system in Greater Manchester carries 41 million passengers every year. It covers 60 miles over 93 stops. However, as always in Greater Manchester, we are not content to stand still. We want to go even further.

At the moment a new line is being built to Trafford Park, and that will provide fantastic connectivity to one of Europe’s largest employment sites. People across Greater Manchester will be able to travel through the city centre and on to Trafford Park, and capitalise on the jobs that are being created there. That builds on the success of the airport line, which will take people to Manchester Airport, one of our enterprise zones—also essential for getting people to decent, well paid, secure jobs, particularly now, and in the future too.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) I am ever mindful that the Government have committed to reducing pollution levels massively in our cities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a working, modern, technology-friendly public transport system is essential for Manchester and other cities like it, and that the expansion of services into the ​south will attract more people into using the service, making it more effective, and therefore cost-effective, and benefit the environment as well?

Jim McMahon That is a very important point about the benefits for the environment and the economy. At one point, I was slightly fearful that we were going to make a claim for an extension over to Northern Ireland, which would be a great day out, but I might struggle to—

Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con) As the hon. Gentleman is talking about providing extensions, I would like to make a bid. At the moment, as he knows, East Didsbury is at the end of the line, as it comes out towards my constituency of Cheadle. We would love to see the line go all the way through to Stockport, as well as going to Manchester Airport, so that we would get true connectivity around the south of our area.

Jim McMahon That is an important point. I will mention some potential routes later. There is a case to be made not only for the Didsbury line to be extended, but for a connection from Ashton through to Stockport and through to the airport, because as important as the connections in and out of Manchester city centre are, so too are the orbital links connecting the boroughs around Greater Manchester, beyond the city of Manchester. We should be ambitious; we need to create a transport vision that will guide us for decades. The people who laid the foundations for Manchester’s current Metrolink system came up with that idea—that nugget of how Greater Manchester could be different, and could be modern—many, many generations before it was built. It is important that we now take on that responsibility for the next generation, and plan that far ahead. I think Stockport ought to be the beneficiary of a tramline. I think we ought to be able to connect the whole of that eastern ring, too.

The Oldham line, which is my particular interest, started construction in 2011 and opened in 2014. Work began in the year that I became council leader in Oldham and so we had the great success of work beginning on the line. It was previously a heavy rail line, which was then decommissioned, to be turned into a light rail system. Clearly, that caused a lot of disruption and not everybody was convinced that a tram coming through the town would pay dividends and ultimately be a benefit to it, given all the traffic chaos that naturally happens when we start laying tram tracks on the road network. Plenty of people said, “If you build a tram from Oldham to Manchester, surely people are just going to go to Manchester and that will be to the detriment of Oldham.” We said, “No, this is about that connectivity that makes us part of a great Greater Manchester. If Oldham sits in isolation, thinking it is an island, and does not capitalise on one of the best cities in the world, we are missing a trick.”

It was important not just to capitalise on a great city, but to have a vision for Oldham that meant it could be the best Oldham it could be. Metrolink was very important as part of that vision and that future economy. Significantly, the phase 3 line saw an investment of £764 million. It also connected many key sites. Obviously, it connected through Oldham and on to Rochdale, but it also went through two previous housing market renewal sites. We ​know that where Metrolink stations are placed, there is a good effect on the housing market and demand in that locality. So Freehold, where the Metrolink stop is placed, was a key site for housing market renewal. We know the local authority is keen to see that being redeveloped, with the eyesore of the Hartford mill, which might be the subject of a future Adjournment debate, demolished to make way for decent, secure accommodation for people to live in and to create a thriving neighbourhood. Metrolink also connected the Derker community, where there was a lot of clearance as part of the housing market renewal project. Now it has fantastic family houses for people to live in, just a walk to the station, where they are connected to Rochdale, on to Manchester and further into the network—to connectivity that is vital for them.

As I said, people vote with their feet. The old heavy rail system, with the clunker carriages we used to have on the old Oldham Mumps station, carried 1.1 million passengers a year, which was impressive, but nowhere near as impressive as the figure of 3.6 million people using the current Metrolink system on the same line. So we know this has a material effect on increasing passenger numbers, and the more people who go on the tram, the fewer the people who have to travel by car, because they have a genuine alternative, provided in a more environmentally friendly way.

If the Government are serious about creating the northern powerhouse, it is crucial that we rebalance the UK’s economy. But we also need to understand that if all we do is benefit Manchester city centre and the south of Manchester, which have historically been the better performing parts of Greater Manchester, and we do not concentrate on north Manchester, which has historically underperformed compared with the south of Greater Manchester, we will miss an opportunity to make sure that every part of the northern powerhouse can benefit from future investment. Let me give some context on that, because this is not just about a northern Manchester bias and saying “Why does south Manchester get everything at our expense?” This is where the facts are. The gross value added return for Manchester south is £34.8 billion a year, which accounts for 68% of the total GVA for the whole of Greater Manchester. So we can see that an underperforming north Manchester—I am not saying south Manchester is necessarily overperforming—needs to do far better to rebalance and to contribute to that greater GVA. To do that, we need concerted and long-term investment planning—on transport, on housing and on schools. So this debate is about how we might achieve that.

Those who have been on the Manchester Metrolink and gone on a real journey will perhaps bear with me while I take them on what could be a journey of the future, if the Government and Greater Manchester are willing to work together on this plan. I am going to concentrate on the potential of connecting Oldham with Middleton and then on to the Bury line at Heaton Park. Currently, when the tram comes down the Metrolink track and gets to Westwood station, it turns off to the left, towards Manchester. In the new journey we are taking today, however, the tram could continue straight down Middleton Road, towards the sunny climes of Middleton. People could benefit from a park and ride in Middleton town centre and go on further towards Heaton Park, and join with a Bury line that would connect them with Bury and that part of Greater Manchester.​

Coming back, where the line currently carries on to Rochdale after Oldham Mumps, people could go on from Mumps, perhaps up Ashton Road or even along the disused railway line—which would be a cheaper option, although clearly not to the benefit of as many people—on to Ashton town centre, where the line currently terminates. There is nothing worse than a line that terminates; we could at least carry it on and make it nice and tidy. People could carry on straight to Ashton town centre and then, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) said, there would be the potential of a loop to Stockport and on to Manchester airport. Suddenly, we are beginning to create what the Manchester Evening News has dubbed the “circle line”. That is a way to use public transport to create proper interconnectivity across Greater Manchester, just like the M60 motorway currently provides for car users. That would be a fantastic boost for many people accessing jobs and for our local economy and tourist industry.

All that would also give Oldham a critical part to play as an important transport hub. It would not just be the place that people pass through; it would mean that Oldham Mumps, which is currently a strategic regeneration site, would be a critical point of interconnectivity between Bury, Rochdale, Manchester and Tameside, and perhaps further on if we have further extensions. Oldham would become an important place for investment and regeneration, and I believe it would be an important catalyst for the rebalancing of the Greater Manchester economy.

To achieve all that, we need to be honest. Currently, financial modelling is heavily predicated on the question, “What does this mean for GVA return?” If we invest £1, what will be the pound-for-pound return in the local economy? This is where the way in which we assess capital investment in this country needs a fundamental rethink. There ought to be a measure to take human capital into account.

What is our starting point if we want everybody to have equal opportunity to access well-paid, secure jobs and decent leisure and sporting facilities? To do that, we need to accept that different communities in Greater Manchester will start at different points and that a rebalancing will need to take place. It is important to bear in mind that we can rebalance in two ways: we can bring the highest-performing area down to the level of the lowest-performing area, so that they are equal but have to share scraps of the table, and the economy will suffer; or we can use investment to raise areas that are not currently performing as well as they could be, so that everybody thrives across Greater Manchester.

To achieve that second option, we need a different way of assessing GVA return, because the truth is that on any assessment today, building a mile of Metrolink track in, say, Trafford would have a higher GVA return than building a mile of Metrolink track in Oldham, just because the starting point is very different. I do not believe that that is the way to generate an investment plan that rebalances the economy in the way we need it to be rebalanced.

This debate is about setting out a potential route, but I am not precious about exactly which road or route the new tram line ultimately goes along. I am, though, passionate about Oldham realising its full potential. I am passionate about people in Oldham being able to access high-performing, decent, secure, well-paid jobs throughout Greater Manchester. I am desperate for ​young people in Oldham to recognise that their horizon is not just at the end of their street, but is much further away, and for it to be available to them because it is affordable and accessible.

Let me tell a personal story. I have been helping my son to navigate the complex world of apprenticeships and college courses. We were looking at some apprenticeships in Trafford Park, which is not far away at all—we can get there by car in half an hour. My son was looking at engineering courses. The problem is that our bus system does not connect young people with Trafford Park in a way that means they can work shifts on those jobs. For instance, if a young person living in Royton wants to get to Trafford Park for a 6 am shift start, they would have to set off at 11.30 pm the night before, because the buses do not start until quite late in the morning. Therefore, if a young person cannot get a driving licence and a car to make their own way there, and they are reliant on public transport, which for people in Royton is a bus at the moment, straight away they are excluded from working shifts in one of the largest engineering employment locations in Europe. That just cannot be right.

I am not saying in this debate that if all we do is to build a bit of Metrolink track, Oldham will be fixed. My point is much broader: we need to get transport in Greater Manchester right for the people who live in Greater Manchester. Significant effort has been made by the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and by his team on the Greater Manchester combined authority. Sterling work has been carried out by Andrew Fender and by all the very dedicated officers that work at Transport for Greater Manchester. The truth is that much of this comes down to resource and investment. Unfortunately, in Greater Manchester, we have lost many local bus routes that would connect young people in particular with the job opportunities of tomorrow, and we need to see investment in that area.

We also need proper capital investment that at least puts Greater Manchester on a par with London. We want Greater Manchester to thrive and to play an active part in the northern powerhouse, but the northern powerhouse cannot be done on the cheap; it needs investment on a par with that of this great capital city. Manchester deserves absolutely every penny of that investment. If we see even a fraction of it, we will see very different outcomes for young people in Greater Manchester.

I urge the Government to get behind this. I am not necessarily talking about the A to Z route that we are proposing—that will come out of a feasibility report and a technical assessment of what is possible and, of course, it has much to do with patronage and whatever physical barriers may be in place. There should be no barrier to our desire to make Greater Manchester absolutely great. That can happen only if the Government come to the table, offer real investment and work with Greater Manchester to make sure that transport in the future is far better than it is today.