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Manchester Bus Travel

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010

The Manchester cross-city bus scheme illustrates some general points about bus travel in urban areas, and it is obviously specific to Manchester. Its purpose is to improve public transport between East Didsbury, Manchester city centre, Middleton and Salford, and it runs through much of the inner city. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) would also like to make a few points about the impact on his constituents.

The scheme consists of bus priority measures, such as excluding cars from part of the route, road widening, increasing capacity at different junctions and adjusting traffic light sequencing electronically—not between red, amber and green, but when they go on and off and what priority they give to buses. Everyone would agree with the scheme’s objectives, which are to improve bus services, to integrate public transport, to improve reliability, to decrease journey times, to provide environmental benefits and to reduce accidents. Unfortunately, when examining the scheme in detail, it becomes clear that it is most unlikely that those objectives will be achieved.

The majority of my points are about the Manchester scheme—why it is fundamentally flawed, and why it will disadvantage my constituents—but general conclusions may be drawn about the difficulty of improving public transport, particularly bus transport, in urban areas where the bus system is deregulated and a free-for-all.

Experience of bus priority measures on radial routes shows that, although there may be an increase in the number of buses travelling along major radial routes and an increase in the number of passengers on those routes, the bus companies—First Group has almost a monopoly in north Manchester and Stagecoach has almost a monopoly in south Manchester—achieve that and increase their profitability by withdrawing services from other parts of the network and putting them on those radial routes. There are improvements on radial routes at peak times, but a worse service elsewhere. If the integrated transport authority wants to replace the withdrawn services as part of the network, there is a direct raid on the public purse. That applies anywhere, but it applies particularly in Manchester.

The first objective is improved bus services, and services on those routes are quite good, although they could be better throughout the city. It is difficult to improve them by much, but there is likely to be a worsening of services in the network as a whole. We must remember that, although authority is available in the Local Transport Act 2008 to start quality contracts and to take control of fares, service levels and networks, the proposals are based on partnership, so there will be no control of fares, networks and schedules. Bus companies will be able to do what they do so well and have a business model that directly targets the public purse, rather than producing the best bus services for passengers.

I shall illustrate what is happening in Greater Manchester, and why we need quality contracts and not the cross-city scheme. People in Broughton and Kersal in Salford use the 95 and 93 routes. One is subsidised and the other is provided by First Group as part of the deregulated system. They are unreliable, and greater public subsidy has been put into one of those routes, but passengers have a poor service. What those passengers require is a service to Hope hospital, but there is no direct connection because First Group does not find it profitable to run that service. People also need services to new centres of employment, such as the new BBC site in Salford Quays, but there is no direct route. That is a case for having a planned and regulated network, and I hope that it illustrates, in particular and in general, why we are unlikely to see an overall improvement in public transport.

The second objective is better transport integration, but that simply cannot be guaranteed in a deregulated system because the bus companies will put on and take off services, so that they make the most profit and receive more subsidy from the integrated transport authority.

The third objective is reliability. The 95 and 93 routes are unreliable not because of congestion—in the early evening when there is little congestion the buses often do not turn up—but because First Group is unreliable. I asked the Department for Transport a parliamentary question about the causes of unreliability generally in the bus system. At least one third of them were due to poor maintenance and buses simply not turning up. It had nothing to do with congestion. That objective is unlikely to be achieved.

There may be an improvement in journey times, particularly for journeys across the city, if the scheme goes ahead. But for the vast majority of my constituents who go into the city centre, the improvement in journey time would be limited.

I simply cannot understand what environmental benefits there would be for my constituents. There would be more buses, so more particulate matter—PM10s and PM2.5s—and more congestion. There would probably be an increase in rat-running and noise pollution, so my constituents would suffer twofold or threefold. It is also claimed that there would be a reduction in accidents. There is a comparator on the Cheetham Hill road and Bury Old road, where a bus priority scheme has been put in place. When travelling from Manchester city centre, a big sign before the bus priority section shows how many accidents there have been in the previous 12 months. The evidence is that the scheme, which is hazardous for pedestrians, is not good for car users or shopkeepers and has not helped to reduce accidents—quite the reverse.

On economic benefits, it is vital to the economy to increase capacity, so that more people will go into Manchester city centre to enjoy the benefits of a thriving economy. In the analysis that we have seen, there is no assessment of whether the scheme would mean more people getting into the city centre, or fewer.

A consultation process on the scheme started in October and continued until December. I asked for it to be extended, and the integrated transport authority and the passenger transport executive were good enough to extend their acceptance of submissions for another four weeks. However, they did nothing extra to improve communication with my constituents who were involved, and I found that the consultation was deeply flawed and very poor.

Will my hon. Friend remind the House that as part of that “wide public consultation”, the group of people who missed out were Members of Parliament?

My hon. Friend makes an objective comment and I agree with him. Such a major scheme should have had not only consultation but pre-consultation and discussion. That did not happen. There was an exhibition in the sixth-form college where I have my offices, but it attracted only 50 people. Within my constituency, and just outside it, probably between 15,000 and 20,000 people are affected by the scheme, so there is a suspicion of bias. Two hundred people have written to me supporting the extension of the consultation and asking for traffic impact assessments. That has not been done. The engineers have looked and said, “There is sufficient capacity on the major routes and those routes near them, so it is all right.” That provides an incentive for rat running, rather than looking at the impact of the scheme on my constituents.

One of the surprising things was the number of people who wrote to me—perhaps it is not that surprising. Some mentioned the potential impact of rat running, which has to be envisaged and does not happen at the present time. However, people who live on the main road, Rochdale road, are more strongly opposed to the scheme because their businesses and ability to access their homes will be badly affected. The final nail in the coffin of the suggestion that the consultation was effective and successful is that almost nobody to whom I spoke or who wrote to me, including some well-informed residents groups such as the Trinity group, or the Collyhurst village group, knew about the scheme until I talked to them. The consultation has been defective, to say the least.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister a number of questions. Some of my points refer to the integrated transport scheme. I know that the Government supported the Local Transport Act 2008, and they have put money into helping integrated transport authorities move towards quality contracts. Can the Minister do anything else to help the Greater Manchester integrated transport authority move towards a quality contract that would deal with some of the problems in a way that the cross-city bus scheme does not? Has he got a breakdown of Exchequer expenditure and local expenditure and how it would be used in the scheme? Will he tell us whether the bus service operator grant could be transferred to the integrated transport authority? Although integrated transport authorities have little control over buses, if the bus service operator grant were transferred to them it would give them a real handle on how to deal with those bus companies that exploit my constituents. Does he agree that Greater Manchester is not making the progress that it should towards an integrated transport authority because it is led by a Liberal Democrat and supported by Conservatives? Both west Yorkshire and south Yorkshire are making more progress.

My final point is that there is clearly no benefit for my constituents. They will get the pollution, the rat running and the noise, but very little improvement in the time it takes to get into the city centre. All the benefits, if there are any, will go elsewhere and people are likely to get a worse bus service. Some of the junctions on roads where people live will have increased capacity. The junction of Moston lane and Rochdale road is dangerous at the moment, and together with local councillors, I fought hard to get improved pedestrian crossings on that road. If the junction capacity is increased, it will become more dangerous. I look forward to the Minister’s reply to the general and detailed points about this scheme.

Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing this timely debate. When I reminded him that the integrated transport authority had not bothered to consult Members of Parliament in its wider consultation, that was not a matter of vindictiveness on my part. Together with some of my local councillors, I will go to see the chair of that body on Friday, so the debate is timely in that sense and it is helpful to concentrate people’s minds on the exchange that will take place later this week.

I share my hon. Friend’s unease. We all agree that in Manchester in particular, and for bus transport in general, the idea of a modal shift and getting people out of their cars and on to buses is right and proper. Improving the quality of the bus travelling experience is important as part of that process, and where possible, part of that means taking buses out of congested zones and helping them to move more quickly. That makes a lot of sense.

In Manchester, the concept of the bus corridor attempts to tick a box. For virtually all my life and that of my hon. Friend, Manchester has been a city with its north and south broken apart. Integrating transport systems to give proper through transit is a good idea, and I concede that that concept has merit. However, the specifics of this scheme are difficult in two ways. First, it is not certain that it will make the difference that we are told it is intended to make. Secondly, if the scheme makes a difference, under the law of unintended consequences, improving the lot of some will have a potentially serious and deleterious impact on the lives of others. Those who will experience the downside of the scheme are more likely to live in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, because our constituencies are at the centre of the conurbation. Of course, if we see the affluent suburbs of Greater Manchester shifted into bus transportation that will be a good thing, but not if the cost is borne by our inner-city constituents.

My hon. Friend concentrated his remarks on the north of the city, but I want to mention the route through the Wilmslow Road and Oxford Road corridor that comes in from the south of the city. It is probably one of the most bussed routes in this country; there might be parts of London that can out-bus it, but there is nothing in the north of England. It is the student corridor, and a huge number of buses go up and down that route.

The present proposal is for everything to be de facto pedestrianised, except the public transport systems. The Oxford Road corridor goes through the university area of the city, which is a heavily congested part of the road system in the morning, so the concept makes a degree of sense. The problem is what happens to the traffic that is displaced from that corridor. The planners told me that in their view, traffic will simply disappear long before it hits the central part of the city, and people will find other ways into the city leading to a reduction in car transport. However, the models are frankly bizarre and perverse. I was shown what was described as the industry model. I do not say this boastfully, but many years ago I used to be a statistician so I probably know a little about mathematical modelling. I know that the old concept in life, “Garbage in, garbage out,” applies to mathematical and road transport models just as it applies to everything else. If we do not provide the proper parameters on the way in, we do not get the results coming out.

One bizarre thing that the model showed me was how traffic coming in from the south of the city in the morning—this will mean something to local people; I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Minister to follow it in detail—would turn right past Manchester Royal infirmary and then turn right again as it passed the infirmary, which would take it back out south of the city. No one going into the city in the morning chooses to joyride and hit the congestion zone simply to go out of the city again at that point, or at least if they do, they are crazy, and there cannot be too many people in Greater Manchester who are crazy enough to want to do that. Therefore the model, of itself, did not fill me with confidence that the modellers knew what they were doing.

I am concerned that there will be a displacement factor and that the displacement will move the traffic that currently uses the Wilmslow Road and Oxford Road corridor on to, in particular, the Lloyd Street corridor in Moss Side. That road has a number of secondary and primary schools. It is a residential part of the city. When the planners said to me that they wanted a reduction in the accident rate because some students are injured in accidents on the Oxford Road corridor, which is a serious point, I said that we do not advantage things if we reduce accident rates for students and simply move the problem on to younger people and young children on a road a little way away as we move the traffic past those schools.

The point that I want to establish for the Minister is that the modelling has not been convincing. When I challenged those putting the case, they were not convincing in their response. That is the first point. The second point is that in a system such as the one that we are discussing, there may be a benefit, but we must ensure that there are not disbenefits that are sufficiently large or sufficiently concentrated to outweigh it, at least for those local communities.

There is another part of my constituency where there will be other traffic flows. I am referring to Upper Brook street and the fact that there is already the disadvantage that some of my constituents are cut off from the university area. I want to see that situation made better, not worse.

My final point is that significant public moneys will be put into the scheme. We need to know that it has been robustly tested so that the costs are acceptable to those who will bear them, that the benefits are real and that the cost-benefit in total is worth having, but that case has not yet been made.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean; I think that this is the first time that I have done so. I place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) for securing this debate on cross-city bus travel. I am grateful for his contribution and for that of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd). They managed to articulate, in a short time, their passion for ensuring that we get good value for taxpayers’ money and reminded me and the Government as a whole of some of the unintended consequences of good intentions that can arise when people try to improve public transport and the knock-on problems that that can cause to other parts of the public transport family.

Let me say at the outset that I will be considering shortly whether to grant initial funding approval for the cross-city bus corridor and I have been persuaded to take into account the points raised by both my hon. Friends this afternoon before I decide what I shall do with the scheme. As I said, it will come before me shortly. I will not go through the 15 pages of my speech, which I had envisaged doing. What I will do is write to both my hon. Friends with specific points that I cannot address during my speech. I want to deal with the specific points that they raised.

My hon. Friends will be aware that the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive is the promoter of the scheme, but the ITA is the governing body to which the PTE reports. I have no brief to defend them or to speak on their behalf, but I am sure that it will be appreciated that it is far better that decisions on public transport are taken locally rather than by me, sitting in Whitehall and not appreciating what happens locally.

Over the last period, we have spent record amounts on public transport, including buses. This year, we are spending £2.9 billion, and more journeys are being made on our buses this year than at any time since deregulation in the mid-1980s. Some 4.5 billion journeys are made a year, and millions of journeys are made in Manchester. However, my hon. Friends reminded me that if we are to encourage more people to use buses, simply putting more buses on the road is not enough. We need to ensure that bus passengers have punctual and reliable services on clean and efficient vehicles. PTEs have a huge role in ensuring that that is the case.

Greater Manchester PTE has been working in partnership with Manchester, Rochdale and Salford councils to identify how to improve local transport connections. Their proposals include introducing highway, bus priority and congestion management measures, together with significant improvements for pedestrians and cyclists. The scheme that we are discussing forms part of the package to be funded through the Greater Manchester transport fund, which relates to a proposed investment programme of £1.5 billion for prioritised transport schemes designed to deliver the maximum economic benefit to Greater Manchester. That is why I am so pleased that my hon. Friends have reminded me, on the day when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave an outstanding Budget statement, of the importance of securing value for money for every single penny that is spent.

The PTE expects the cross-city bus package scheme to enhance the existing Greater Manchester quality bus corridor network and to help to address the unique problems of the Oxford Road corridor, which has the highest demand for bus travel in Greater Manchester but the poorest results in terms of performance, which causes me huge concern.

My hon. Friends have demonstrated that they know the area much better than I do. I have been told that the Oxford Road corridor is the location of Manchester Royal infirmary and the higher education precinct, which comprises the sites of two universities. It is also a significant economic centre and includes about 4 per cent. of the city’s business stock. The PTE has predicted that the employment potential of Oxford road will increase from 36,000 jobs in 2008 to more than 55,000 by 2020. The proposed scheme is designed to enhance public transport links between areas of deprivation to the north and west of Manchester.

I am aware—my hon. Friends raised these points very well—of the concerns that they have about the public consultation on the proposed measures, which I understand took place last October, November and December. I understand that there will be a further opportunity to provide feedback as part of the traffic regulation order process, which the local highway authorities are promoting on the PTE’s behalf. In addition, I have been reminded that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central will meet representatives of the ITA this Friday to discuss, in particular, his concerns about displacement of traffic on to residential routes in Moss Side. I have taken on board the points that my hon. Friends raised on consultation.

It is worth reminding my hon. Friends of what my role is. Since receipt of the business case, the Department has been working closely with the PTE, but we are not yet in a position to approve the proposed scheme for entry to the programme of local major transport schemes. We had concerns about some of the issues relating to the application given to us, which we have worked through with the scheme’s promoters. Our assessment of the bid for the scheme has focused on the traffic appraisal, which has highlighted a number of issues on which the PTE and its consultants have had to undertake further work. I hope that that is another reassurance that we, too, spotted some problems with the scheme and we have asked for further work to be undertaken. We have now received the results of the additional work. One concern related to the modelling. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central remembers his days as a statistician. He will be reassured that my officials, too, thought that there were issues, which led us to ask for further work to be undertaken.

I am aware of the concerns that my hon. Friends have raised about the scheme in today’s debate. I note the concerns about the impact on their constituents of the proposed implementation of the measures both along the Rochdale Road corridor and in Moss Side. I take on board the concerns raised about quality contracts. We have done all that we can to encourage local authorities to use that important tool to improve services. My hon. Friends will be aware that the Conservative party has made a commitment to abolish it from the toolkit of local authorities. We are also considering how we can revamp the way in which we subsidise bus-operating companies in order to ensure that we get maximum value for money. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley raised concerns about some of the challenges of governance, particularly in relation to leaders from different political parties.

Let me reassure my hon. Friends that I will take on board what they have said. I will read Hansard tomorrow morning to ensure that I take on board the points that they have raised before I make a decision. If there are specific points that I have not been able to answer due to the shortage of time, I apologise. I will write to both of them this week to give them the answers that they need so that they are armed with the necessary tools, including for the meeting on Friday with the ITA, to ensure that they get the best possible service for their constituents, who deserve nothing less.