Friday, 19 October 2012

Lobbying My MP

It all came about as a result of a Facebook conversation.
My MP - Chris Kelly (Dudley South) - is a regular on the social media. And whilst he was bizarrely pictured in some long grass (not a metaphor for his chances of promotion - rather he wanted it cut), another update caught my eye. He wasn't a supporter of HS2.
Why not, queried I?
I felt a longer debate coming on, but he was keen to discuss it more in depth at one of his constituency surgeries, and I agreed. Sometimes, despite all of the advantages of social media, a more face-to-face discussion is more appropriate. Is "lobbying your MP" old hat? Or is it more important than ever?
I'm not a politician-basher. I'm probably in the minority in this country where I still believe MPs go into the job for the right reasons. I've interviewed enough of them on my radio show to get that impression.
So I believe it's important, if you believe passionately in something, to understand your MP's view on the topic.
It's probably fair to say that Chris Kelly MP knows my view on public transport already. His father, Chris Kelly Senior, owns a truck dealership and is all for roads. I've had a few "debates" with him over the years on the letters pages of local newspapers. But what of his son?
MPs are decision-makers. Or they're close to the ones that do. I don't subscribe to the view that politics and politicians aren't relevant in people's lives. Politics is in everything we do - and especially so in transport.
I was disappointed but not surprised to hear Chris's views.
On HS2 he thought it akin to Concorde - only to be used by those who could afford it. And the West Coast Main Line didn't seem to be an issue capacity-wise, in his opinion. He made the point that a family of 4 coming to visit him at Westminster faced a hefty bill for train fares - and for people who don't regularly travel by rail turning up for a walk-on fare via Virgin, it's a point that is well made and understood. For all of the cheap fares you can obtain by booking in advance, a walk-up fare for some journeys astonishes many people.
Would he "rebel" when it comes to the vote on HS2? In true politician-speak, he avoided that question, but it was clear that the people of Dudley South won't be having the support of their MP if they want HS2! To be fair, HS2 isn't a burning issue in these parts, unlike some of the constituencies where it will pass through. But nonetheless HS2 IS important to the Black Country - for reasons far more wide-ranging than simply getting people to London "a few minutes quicker" (which I corrected him on) - the whole issue of capacity on the existing network is vital to our long-term rail system in the West Midlands as well as new journey opportunities, and the chance to get more freight onto the tracks (might affect the long-term objectives of a certain truck retailer?)
Locally, what about buses?
The Black Country - like many other areas of the country - suffers from chronic traffic congestion at many times of the day. Chris even admitted he'd sat in nose to tail traffic to get to his surgery this evening.
I asked him how he could possibly be happy with that situation.
He made the point about "choice". It's all about giving people the choice about how they get from A to B. Reliability was an issue, but how could buses be more reliable if they were stuck in traffic?
The point was made by Chris that if buses were more reliable, more attractive and ticketing was simpler (the London Oyster was quoted - which we're getting a version of in Centro-land very soon) people would choose to use buses more. We're seeing large-scale investment in new vehicles by the Region's largest operator National Express West Midlands - all good, positive stuff - but it's still only one part of the overall jigsaw.
All very laudable (and an argument I've heard many times over the years), but, as in London, modal-shift has been in action due to a carrot and stick approach. Give the bus the advantage - via bus lanes, for example - and there can be no better advertisement for getting people out of their cars onto the bus.
I accept that, here in Dudley, it's different to London. We don't have lots of places where bus priority can be implemented, but then again, we don't appear to have the politicians - locally or nationally - who seriously want to see something done about the traffic congestion which blights our daily lives. The example Chris gave was an idea to implement a new traffic scheme in nearby Pensnett, which would give much freer access to the trading estate and allow freight to access the motorway network much easier (I wonder who else has been lobbying him!)
I don't accept Chris's analysis that "for most people, getting around by car is their only option". Yes, we have a huge challenge to "sell" public transport - as well as cycling and walking - as an alternative option, and of course people's journeys are often more complicated than we think, but the challenge is to create a situation where these alternative modes are seriously considered - and I admit we're not there by any stretch of the imagination yet. Centro is about to embark on a large-scale project - "Smart Network: Smarter Choices" which will attempt to address some of these issues. Whilst it's a challenge to change perceptions of public transport and other alternatives to the car, the will is there to try from Centro.
The other challenge - for everyone who is an advocate of public transport - is to challenge their MP to think about these issues. Public transport is about as exciting as utility bills for those who don't live and breathe it! Myself and other commentators on public transport talk about "making it sexy" - a talking point that gets it into people's thinking.
Whilst we must convince others that thinking about alternatives to the car isn't being "anti-car", we must always engage politicians - local and national - to think differently about public transport, and the difference it can make to congestion and getting around.
Chris talked about Centro lacking discussion about roads themselves. He may have a point, as he appears to see them as having a vested interest in promoting buses trains and trams (of course they do!) but the discussion has to embrace EVERYTHING about how we all move around from A to B (as well as C & D).
Was my 15 minutes with my MP successful? Who can tell? Getting better public transport is an ongoing process that never ends. The point is that we keep moving forward to achieve this, and part of the huge jigsaw that this involves is talking to people that matter. And whatever your views on politicians, they ultimately DO matter in the scheme of things. They are one of many people advocates of public transport need to talk to again and again and again to underline the importance of this industry and what it does for millions of people every day.
As for Chris Kelly MP, I'll keep talking to him, face-to-face, via social media or any via any other avenue. So long as he is my MP, he is one of many people who can make a difference. And as someone who wants the best public transport we can achieve he knows I will!

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