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MPs in ‘levelled up’ areas still rely on cars instead of public transport

Even government’s own junior ministers for levelling up and local transport are claiming thousands of pounds to drive

Adam Bychawski
23 May 2023, 10.00pm

Hopes of reopening disused local railway lines in some levelling up areas have been dashed.


Robert Brook

Public transport in the government’s flagship “levelling up” areas is still so inadequate that even their own MPs do not rely on it, openDemocracy has found.

Both Conservative and Labour MPs for city regions outside London, including two ministers involved in the “levelling up” project, are driving hundreds of miles around their constituencies. It is four years since the Tories pledged to close the gap between the capital and the rest of the country.

The government awarded billions to city regions between 2017 and 2020 as part of a push to improve local transport networks – funding that was later rebranded as part of Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda after his 2019 election victory.

But MPs representing areas that received funding are still claiming thousands of pounds for car travel – something residents told openDemocracy was inevitable because public transport has still not improved.

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Even the junior minister responsible for local transport has claimed £24,000 on car travel since 2020, despite the government awarding the North East more than £200m in funding to “level up” its public transport network since 2020.

North West Durham MP Richard Holden took the post of under-secretary for roads and local transport at the Department for Transport in October 2022, the sixth person to do so in the space of four years.

Dehenna Davison – the government’s under-secretary for levelling up at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – also struggles to rely wholly on public transport. The Bishop Auckland MP claimed more than £3,000 for car journeys last year, more than twice what she expensed for trains.

Davison spent almost £1,000 alone on parking at Darlington rail station, which has rail connections to London, rather than opt to take the train from her constituency to the town.

Some towns appear to have not benefited at all from multi-million-pound regional transport grants given to local authorities in the so-called Red Wall.

In Sedgefield, where Boris Johnson promised locals he would “repay your trust” during his post-election victory tour, attempts to reopen a disused local rail station have come to nothing.

Paul Howell, the Conservative MP for Sedgefield, has repeatedly called for funding to bring back the transport link to no avail, despite his region receiving £200m in March 2020 to improve local transport.

It means that Howell has claimed more than £2,000 on car journeys in his constituency since 2020 – but only apparently been able to take the train twice to get to where he needs to go.

One of the cities to receive a big funding award for transport improvements is Derby, which won £161m in a joint bid with Nottingham in March 2020. But three years on, Derby South MP Amanda Solloway still appears to be heavily reliant on driving to travel around her constituency.

Solloway has expensed almost £2,000 for car mileage, parking and taxis to get around the city since 2020.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Mair Bain, a science communicator, who has lived in Derby since 2006. “Generally, the public transport in Derby is pretty poor.

“I’ve tried contacting her a lot about transport-related things because of the campaigning I’ve done to stop road building and encourage other forms of transport in Derby. She’s always disinterested and makes excuses about how people need to drive.”

In some Derby suburbs, long-running services have been cut altogether. Jean Martin, 74, and her husband, 76, relied on the Spondon Flyer to get to the city centre and back nearly every day since it launched in 1995. In July 2022, the operator ​​Trent Barton cancelled the service citing a lack of passengers. A much scaled-back replacement route was launched in March after thousands signed a petition to keep it running.

Now what used to be a 40-minute bus ride to the hospital takes Jean, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, almost twice that long by car. The replacement service does not run to the hospital.

“It has made both me and my husband functionally housebound as we can’t walk the half mile to the next closest bus stop,” she told openDemocracy. 

“It’s important to us because we like being independent and have used public transport all our lives.”

Further north, residents in Sheffield and Manchester are also still waiting for the transformation the fund promised to arrive.

Marj Powner, an environmental campaigner from Sale, Trafford, believes that the £300m awarded to Greater Manchester has barely been enough to keep things running amid high inflation and the fallout of the pandemic.

“I think that’s just a fraction of what’s needed,” she said. “Every district probably needs £300m. And there’s 10 districts in Greater Manchester.

“Right now, people don’t think ‘I’ll go and get the bus’ because there aren’t any buses. And if they are, they’re unreliable, and they’re expensive. So we need them to be more frequent, more reliable and more affordable.”

Sheffield received £60m but Dexter Johnstone, the chair of CycleSheffield, says there is little to show for it.

“Public transport is appalling. If you live in one suburb of Sheffield, and you want to get to a different suburb of Sheffield, unless you’re very lucky, you won’t have a direct bus route that does that. So you’ll probably have to go to a bus stop and wait, potentially, half an hour. And you won’t have any live journey bus information so you won’t know if that bus exists. And then you'll have to wait for the other bus to leave the town centre,” he said.

Southampton received a £62m local transport grant between 2019 and 2020, but none of its MPs have claimed expenses for taking public transport around the city region.

Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, has claimed more than £4,000 on driving within her constituency, including parking costs. 

Her colleague, Southampton Itchen MP Royston Smith, has claimed five times more on driving to London (£6,000) than he has on taking the train to the capital – despite it taking just over an hour.

And Alan Whitehead, the Labour MP for Southampton Test, has claimed more than £1,700 on parking at Southampton railway station before travelling to London by train.

Conservative MPs have taken to venting their frustrations at the poor state of local transport outside of London in Parliament.

In 2021, West Dorset MP Chris Loder lambasted then transport secretary Grant Shapps for the lack of funding for bus services in his constituency.

“I have children who cannot get to school, regrettably, who want to go to sixth form to learn to do more things, and they cannot. Do the government have any plans whatsoever to help the 16-to-18 age bracket outside of London, and particularly in very, very rural areas, where I am afraid it is just not feasible for an alternative?” he asked.

Shapps told the MP: “I cannot instantly transform West Dorset, and I am not sure it would be a good idea, into a place where a train turns up every two minutes and there is an underground at every location.”

Loder replied: “It would have to be more than every three hours, secretary of state.”

Norman Baker from the Campaign for Better Transport told openDemocracy: “Improving public transport boosts local economies and the government should prioritise this in its levelling-up agenda. MPs should also be leading by example and using public transport whenever possible to promote sustainable ways of travel.”

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