Last month the Government published a draft Local Transport Bill for consultation. It includes proposals to provide the necessary powers for local authorities to improve bus services, as set out in “Putting Passengers First”.
The proposals have been broadly welcomed in south Yorkshire, even to the extent that last Friday, almost 100 bus users turned out on the wettest day for 35 years to discuss the measures with the Secretary of State. Does my hon. Friend agree with me and those bus users, however, that the measures in the Bill could be improved by giving local authorities the right to introduce the quality contract without having to go to an unaccountable body?
My hon. Friend is indeed an effective campaigner, as has been mentioned before. Indeed, I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that her work last week to promote a better deal for bus passengers by bringing them together with my right hon. Friend was extremely valuable. I congratulate Sheffield city council and the passenger transport executive on signing up to a voluntary quality partnership that will mean better bus services.
I can assure my hon. Friend that the draft Bill does indeed provide for better working partnerships between authorities and operators. It will give more powers to local authorities where needed, and it is important that where quality contracts are proposed, they are properly scrutinised, because they are for the benefit of all, and it is important that we ensure that they are in the public interest.
Does the Minister recall that on 21 May 1997, when the Prime Minister first answered Prime Minister’s questions in this Chamber, he promised the House that the Deputy Prime Minister, who then had responsibility for transport, would be carrying out a review on the question of bus regulation? Since then, we have progressed as far as having a draft Bill. During that time, however, the cost of travelling by bus has increased by 15 per cent., while the cost of travelling by car has fallen by 9 per cent. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister should be satisfied with the progress that her Department has made in the course of the past 10 years?
I am quite sure that the Prime Minister is very pleased that we now have the biggest shake-up of buses for some 20 years and that we have a balanced package of measures in the Bill, which is basically about ensuring better services for bus passengers. In particular, I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that, just last week, provisional figures were published showing that there has been a rise of 85 million bus and light rail passenger journeys, and that 80 million of those additional journeys are made in the English non-metropolitan areas. That shows that bus patronage is on the rise, due in part to the concessionary travel provisions introduced by the Government.
If we are serious about tackling road congestion, there needs to be a meaningful role for park-and-ride, linked into strategic and key bus services. Given that fact, what discussion is my hon. Friend’s Department having with the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive to ensure that that essential element is included in its transport innovation fund bid for Greater Manchester?
Discussions are under way on the TIF bid, which is to deal with congestion. I am sure that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members are aware that I recently had the honour of opening the new GMPTE offices in Manchester, and its commitment to improving bus services, tackling congestion and working for the people of Greater Manchester is commendable.
I am sure that I would be absolutely delighted to visit Kettering. Areas up and down the country have experienced great success in passenger growth. The Local Transport Bill is all about spreading good practice and making sure that the benefits are available, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw for himself in Oxford yesterday.
I urge my hon. Friend to make sure that the new powers in the Bill are coupled with the continuation of the Government’s kick-start programme, which in Newcastle has given us a new, high-frequency bus corridor, the X47 in the north-west of the city, that has attracted thousands of new bus passengers. Sadly, however, the Liberal Democrat council in Newcastle failed for many months to carry out its part of the deal, which was highway improvements to support the scheme.
That is disappointing, if not unsurprising, news from my hon. Friend. The important point about kick-start funding is, as I am sure that the House is aware, that bus funding has almost doubled in real terms since 1997, which includes the kick-start programme. I cannot make a commitment today, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will put the matter under review.
What an interesting question. We have had an apology from the Opposition about rail privatisation, but we have had no such apology about their action on buses. The draft Local Transport Bill, which I hope that the Opposition will support, will introduce a new regime that will put passengers first and deliver better punctuality. That will mean the further development of the community transport sector and the implementation of quality contract schemes through effective partnership working. The Bill is not about returning to the 1980s; it is about looking forward and providing bus travel not only for those who do not have a choice, but for those who do.