Sam Tarry – 2022 Speech on Transport

The speech made by Sam Tarry, the Labour MP for Ilford South, in the House of Commons on 19 May 2022.

Sorry to surprise you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We swapped the buses issue.

Words matter. Days after the Prime Minister came to power, he said something crystal clear to communities across the north and the midlands:

“I want to be the Prime Minister who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did for Crossrail in London, and today I am going to deliver on my commitment…with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route.”

Some 60 times—60 times—the Conservative Government committed to delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail in full. Conservative Members stood on a manifesto pledge to deliver it and the eastern leg of HS2 on three—three—separate occasions. Just last year at the Conservative party conference the Prime Minister said it all again. This was a once-in-a-generation chance to transform opportunities across the whole country, rebalancing the economy and making it work for working people. These schemes would have created more than 150,000 new jobs and connected 13 million people in major towns and cities in our industrial heartlands. But last year, those promises were torn up and the Government do not even have the decency to admit it. They promised HS2 to Leeds. They promised Northern Powerhouse Rail in full and a new line from Leeds to Manchester. They promised the north that it would not be forgotten. But the one thing we know is that we cannot believe a single word the Prime Minister says.

This week, across the north, that is being repeated once again. On Monday, thousands and thousands of passengers saw their services cut back, and towns and cities across the north are paying the price. Let us take Wakefield: three services to the nearby cities of Leeds and Wakefield have been removed altogether; the hourly Huddersfield to Wakefield train has been replaced with a bus service that takes twice as long; and services from Keighley, Dewsbury, Halifax and Hull have all been cut back. Just six months ago, the Prime Minister’s Government said that they would

“protect and improve services on existing lines”

and

“not neglect shorter distance journeys”,

saying

“levelling-up cannot wait.”

They are brazenly breaking the promises that they made to communities time and time again. These towns and cities deserve so much better.

What has the Transport Secretary said about those cuts? Absolutely nothing, to date—he is missing in action. Perhaps he is still waiting for the missing Wakefield to Huddersfield train that is never going to come. He is probably flying on his private little plane. In the middle of a climate and a cost of living crisis, it is senseless to force people off public transport and cut them off from jobs and opportunities. It is time for him to step in and stand up for local communities with a commitment to get services to above and beyond pre-pandemic levels.

The story on buses is no different.

Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn) (Con)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome the £34 million being given to Lancashire County Council to improve bus services. That is exactly what the Government are doing for areas like mine.

Sam Tarry

Any investment is clearly welcome, but the problem is that the amount of money that transport authorities across the country were asked to bid for came to a total of £9 billion. The hon. Lady’s authority was one of the lucky ones to have received funding, because the actual total amount of money dished out was only £1.3 billion. The reality is that dozens and dozens of transport authorities have been completely let down on the funding of buses.

Since the Government took power, 134 million miles of bus routes have been lost, and bus coverage in Britain is currently at its lowest level in more than 30 years. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England—hardly a left-wing think-tank—that has led to the creation of transport deserts in communities up and down the nation. In response to the challenge laid down before us, the Prime Minister announced a national bus strategy, which he painted as the biggest sector shake-up in a generation. More than a year on from its release, the Government’s ambition, which was limited from the outset, has declined even further. The cash—this speaks to the hon. Lady’s point—went to fewer than half the 79 English areas that were eligible and told to apply. Many areas, from Hull to rural North Yorkshire, from Plymouth to Swindon, will not see the lower fares and much-needed improvements to bus services that the Government promised. This is not me saying this; these are facts. The strategy offered nothing for those looking for a bold vision to reverse the loss of millions of miles of bus routes across the country since the Government have been in power. It was a missed opportunity to revolutionise the bus industry and ensure that funds were properly directed to deliver the transition to clean, green vehicles they promised.

Daniel Kawczynski

Bearing in mind we are now spending over £63 billion a year on debt interest payments, where would the hon. Gentleman get the additional money to pay for all of this?

Sam Tarry

The Government said we should be ambitious and local transport authorities therefore said the investment should be £9 billion. My view is that investment grows the economy and creates jobs. HS2 could have guaranteed jobs for hundreds of thousands of rail workers for decades to come. Not investing now is clearly short-sighted.

Robert Largan (High Peak) (Con)

I had the pleasure of serving on the Transport Committee with the hon. Gentleman. The leader of his party, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), voted to block HS2. Was he letting down the north?

Sam Tarry

We stood at the past two elections on a very clear manifesto, which the current leader of the Labour party backed. Our current strategy, which the leader of the Labour party backs, states very clearly that we back it. It is not us who have proposed that HS2 should be cut; it is the Government who have implemented that cut to the eastern leg.

The hon. Gentleman does not have to take my word for it. Tory councils have joined the backlash against what the Prime Minister has done over his pathetic bus funding plan. Conservative Don Mackenzie of North Yorkshire County Council said:

“We knew the Bus Back Better budget had been severely curtailed, but I expected to get some money, not nothing at all, so I’m very disappointed.”

In Shropshire, the Conservative cabinet member for transport said she was “devastated”, adding:

“We are at a complete loss as to why we have been completely overlooked.”

It is a sad and sorry tale that so many Conservative councils across the country are being let down by their own Government.

The sad truth is that, for too long the Tory party has overlooked buses. Some 5,000 services have been lost since they came to power—a staggering quarter of all bus routes in the entire United Kingdom. Far from a bus transformation, many will continue to see a managed decline. The underfunding by the Government has become so severe that a recent report by the former UN special rapporteur Professor Philip Alston highlighted a broken and fragmented system, with skyrocketing fares, plummeting service standards and disappearing routes depriving bus users of an essential public service. The report even went as far as to say that we are failing in our fundamental human rights obligations by allowing this essential service to deteriorate so severely.

Chris Loder (West Dorset) (Con)

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for giving way—I do appreciate it. Does he agree that some of the issues he highlights, which are affecting councils across the country, are the result of continual multibillion-pound settlements having to be directed to Transport for London to bail it out because of the Labour Mayor’s previous poor decision making?

Sam Tarry

My former colleague on the Transport Committee knows that that is a very scurrilous question. The money spent in London supports tens of thousands—and as many as 50,000—jobs outside the capital. For every pound spent in London, over 50p is then spent outside London, so every time money is spent in London, it benefits the wider economy.

Chris Loder

Even during the pandemic, over 18 months —this was even on the TfL website—there was an “extraordinary” funding settlement of £4 billion to bail out TfL because of some of the poor decisions made by the Mayor of London, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that things are not necessarily as clear as he suggests.

Sam Tarry

The reality is that the problematic, poor decisions were made by the chap who is now in Downing Street: the former Mayor of London. He is the chap who cut £1 billion off the budget that was given to TfL every year. TfL was the only major, and probably the biggest, transit system in the western world without any direct Government subsidy until the pandemic. If we ask a transport system to wash its own face—to pay for things only through fares—and 90% of that fare revenue disappears, how on earth can we expect that system to survive? Let us have some serious economics here, not the economics of jokesters.

As I said, the underfunding by this Government has become so severe that the UN special rapporteur has highlighted that it is hitting our poorest communities—communities such as those in Dorset. The report even went as far as to say that the Government were failing the fundamental human rights of people in rural communities. I know that the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) is passionate about badgers, but he needs to be more passionate about buses and speak to the Prime Minister. The worst part of all this is that the same working people who have such shockingly bad services are bearing the brunt of the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis.

Many people are paying 50% more on rail and bus fares to get to work than a decade ago. In March, the Government announced that they would go further still, with a brutal 3.8% rail fare hike for millions of passengers, and with bus fares rising nationwide. As the Minister said, it is great that there is a sale, but as he well knows, £7 million of tickets is a drop in the ocean of fare revenues.

Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)

A lot of people have some sympathy with the idea of spending more on transport infrastructure, but the hon. Gentleman has not outlined any concrete proposals. Does he actually have any plans to spend more money, or is this just hot air from the Opposition Front Bench?

Sam Tarry

Actually, the last Labour manifesto probably had the most comprehensive plan ever put forward at an election for running our rail and other transport networks. It is interesting that a lot of the ideas now being implemented by the Government are watered-down versions of what we put forward then. Instead of having weak lemonade, is it not about time that we had the full pint and something serious?

Incredibly, the Rail Minister had the cheek to say that the eye-watering rail fare hike would make rail more attractive. Many will wonder what planet Ministers are living on if they think people can afford that. Up and down the country, families are really paying the price for decisions made in Downing Street.

While the Conservative party punishes local communities with sky-high fares and substandard services, Labour is fighting across the country for better, cheaper and more affordable transport. In towns and cities nationwide, our leaders in power have a plan to turn the page on a decade of decline, putting communities back at the heart of public transport and transforming it for good. The vision of these Labour leaders is simple: to build buses quicker, cheaper, greener and more reliably. Last year, Andy Burnham decided to move to franchising, with a clear vision that talked of

“a world-class, integrated transport network which can unlock opportunity for all; providing access to jobs and education, reducing pollution, attracting investment and reducing isolation.”

Similarly, Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire has promised to put “people before profit” by introducing

“simpler fares, contactless ticketing, and greener buses.”

In addition to investing millions of pounds in new routes and services, both Mayors are set to cap bus fares at £2, saving passengers up to £1.50 in West Yorkshire and, in some cases, more than £2 in Greater Manchester. That is the difference that Labour in power is making.

Chris Loder

It is important that the House notes that the Labour Mayor of London required continual multibillion-pound bail-outs from this Conservative Government—funds that would otherwise be invested in other parts of the nation. The Labour party is advocating making the same mistake again in Manchester, the west midlands and other places. The hon. Gentleman is advocating a fixed fare, with costs being completely unmanaged and the Government therefore being required to bail out the cost deficit again.

Sam Tarry

I had the misfortune of catching a bus in Manchester about a decade ago, when we had a variety of competing transport companies charging more than £5 a fare. That is clearly not right. All around the world, progressive administrations are making transport affordable. If we are serious about climate change, we need to get people on public transport, whether that is buses, trains or trams. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, finances in London are all to do with the crash in ridership on the tube and the wider TfL system. I am happy to see passenger levels start to rise again, and to do so very quickly, because of the work of our Labour Mayor.

What communities up and down this country need is a Government who match their ambition, not a Government who tell them to be ambitious and then give them hardly any money. We need a transport system that is fit to tackle the climate catastrophe unfolding before our eyes, and that works for the passengers and communities who rely on it. Labour would wrest our rail networks back in full from inefficient private operators. We would put into public hands the parts of the railways that the Government have not. We would give communities across the country London-style powers to reform bus networks, keep fares down and improve services. We would invest in our vital transport infrastructure to boost economic growth and rebalance the economy, which will create thousands of good, green, long-term, unionised jobs. Unfortunately, unless the Government match their communities’ ambition on local transport, they will have failed millions across the country, and their hotchpotch agenda on levelling up will not be delivered. Instead, it will lie in tatters.