Last week, we had yet another incident leading to closure of the Orwell Bridge. I have already had talks, with Suffolk’s other MPs, with the Highways Agency and Councillors and the Police, about what further measures can be taken to prevent people that are thinking of taking their own lives from getting onto the bridge. Of course, one measure is to improve the availability of mental health services and counselling in Suffolk and that will take money – Suffolk is still seriously under-funded for mental health. This is mental health awareness week but, as with so many important issues, the warm words about improving services don’t come with any commitment to provide the resources necessary.
Saving someone’s life has to take precedence over any other considerations, and those people who criticised the police for closing the bridge ought to think for a moment before having a go at officers who are putting themselves at risk in order to protect us.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of the massive disruption to Ipswich traffic when such incidents happen. We should look at ways to prevent people that are thinking of taking their own lives from getting onto the bridge. And we need to put yet more effort into trying to secure an alternative for when the bridge is closed – a northern bypass.
But a northern bypass on its own will achieve little if we don’t also reduce the number of cars driving into the town centre. It is noticeable in London that more and more people are walking or cycling – or running! – to work. If you are close enough and healthy enough and haven’t got too much stuff to carry, these are the best ways to travel. It’s free, it helps you keep fit, you don’t have to find a parking space, and its often not much slower either. Now that summer is on its way is the perfect time to try walking or cycling.
For many, especially older residents, disabled people and students, the only practical way to travel is by bus, and here the Government and the County Council are letting us down. I had a long and intense meeting with the management of First Buses (used to be Eastern Counties) the other day and urged them to improve their services. But there is little they can do without more income. I favour supporting the passengers rather than subsidising the buses themselves – if the Government paid a better rate to the bus companies for disabled and retired people to travel, and included students and jobseekers as well, then they would be able to run more services on routes that working people and families need too, and at a price they could afford to pay.
Transport in London attracts huge subsidies, but bus travel in Suffolk gets very little public financial support at all. If bus companies could afford more frequent buses and more destinations, then far more people would be able to use them. By attracting those who have a choice out of their cars, it would free up space on the roads for those who have to drive for whatever reason. And with investment in cleaner buses we could improve our air quality too. Labour is determined to make affordable, frequent and reliable buses a central plank of our transport policy, and I look forward to seeing the sort of level of service in Ipswich that we used to enjoy in the 1990s.
And then of course we need fast, frequent and reliable trains to get to other towns. The trains in Suffolk are all about to be replaced with new ones, and that will be quite a relief for those who frequently have to stand when they travel. We still need some of the engineering work we have been fighting for, but new track, signals and overhead cables are already beginning to make a difference. On Monday I will be going to London via Norwich, not because I have lost my sense of direction, but to try out the new faster service.
But I can’t help thinking that MPs focus on trains partly because they use them, rather than buses or cycling or walking. We need good trains, of course we do, but we need far more emphasis on the other forms of transport as well. And above all we need to make it easier and safer for people to travel sustainably, otherwise we will none of us have a future destination to travel towards.