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Bus Services (Milton Keynes)

Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 29 June 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

I am grateful to have secured this debate. I requested it because of the significant level of disquiet in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) over the new network and timetable introduced by Arriva buses throughout Milton Keynes on 25 April. The new network and timetable were introduced with hardly any proper consultation, and there have been significant complaints about the punctuality and reliability of the new services.

It is fair to say that, in the seven or eight weeks for which have been a Member of the House, I have had more letters and e-mails on this subject than on any other. On 11 June, my hon. Friend and I attended a forum organised in Milton Keynes. It was a protest meeting organised by the Milton Keynes older persons forum, and I congratulate Peter Ballantyne and his colleagues on organising it. I have never been to such a packed public protest meeting—it was literally standing room only. That gives an indication of the level of disquiet in Milton Keynes over the new bus system.

Before detailing the concerns expressed and outlining what I hope are some of the possible solutions, I shall explain why the design and geography of Milton Keynes makes the provision of good bus services more complex than in many other cities and towns. Unlike most towns and cities, the normal pattern of travel is not just in what one might term a hub-and-spoke arrangement, under which the broad direction of travel is from outlying residential areas into the urban centre, where most businesses, shops and leisure activities are. There is that travel in Milton Keynes, but our grid system disperses places of employment, leisure and retail throughout the city. So the patterns of travel are not just from the outskirts into the middle, but multi-directional at any given point in the day. That presents a challenge to bus operators to put in place an effective system.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of his constituents and is to be congratulated on securing this important debate. Of course, the added complication in Milton Keynes is that about 80% of the unitary authority is rural, so as well as a rather complicated grid-row system we have the rural bus network that makes it even worse.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some of the villages in his constituency, as in mine, either do not have a bus service at all or have such a limited one that it is not reliable for people without cars. Little Brickhill, in my constituency, is one of the villages that lost its post office jut over a year ago. Now the residents there do not have a bus service to get to the nearest post office in the town, so they have had a double whammy in the loss of services. That is an important additional aspect to devising a good bus network.

The other curious and unique feature of Milton Keynes is that the grid road system has fast roads skirting around each of the residential areas, so that cars and buses can travel at high speed. It presents a trade-off between the speed of services and accessibility. There is a choice of either driving buses down the grid roads, which are far away from most people’s homes, or going into the estates, which inevitably lengthens the journey. I appreciate that the bus operators have a difficult task in marrying up those two objectives.

Arriva stated when it introduced the new system that it wanted a faster network. That is what it has achieved, but it has done so at too great a cost to many of the services people rely on. There has been significant opposition to the changes, as I detailed earlier.

I will spare the House a detailed analysis of the individual routes that have changed, but I hope the following gives a little flavour of some of the problems that have arisen since the changes at the end of April. I have had letters from students who have either been late for their exams or missed them altogether; they could not rely on a bus service to get them there in time. Similarly, patients have either missed their hospital or doctor appointments, or been unable to attend them without an inordinately long journey, which they are sometimes not physically capable of making. They are therefore forced to rely on the charity of neighbours or families to transport them, or to face the expense of a taxi.

The Stony Stratford business association wrote to me about its considerable concerns about a downturn in trading following the changes. That is because a direct service into Stony Stratford, which many pensioners used, was lost. I have had reports from volunteers and carers, saying that they are now finding it so difficult to get to the homes of the people they are looking after that they have had to reassess their commitments. Finally, I have had reports from employees, who used to enjoy fast and frequent service to their places of work, but now have to endure such a long and convoluted journey that they are often late into work and have to use up their lunch hour to make up time. These are serious disadvantages, and I believe that many of them are a product of insufficient consultation among Arriva buses, the parish and town councils and different organisations in Milton Keynes.

I have also received complaints that Milton Keynes council itself has not been attentive to the implications of the changes and that there has been a lack of co-ordination. It spent a considerable amount of money putting up fancy new signs saying “this is where the buses come”, and it has put up fancy new bus stops at great expense, which are now not used. There has been a considerable waste of money, which I do not think should have happened. Advertising and notifying passengers of the changes have also been a problem. When I raised that subject briefly in Transport questions a couple of weeks ago, the Minister kindly indicated that he might look at changing the regulations that govern this matter.

The situation is getting so bad that I understand that the traffic commissioner is now aware of the problem and is actively considering whether to intervene if the proper notification from different organisations in Milton Keynes is forthcoming. I do not want to spend this evening looking for scapegoats, going into who caused the problem and who did not do what. I am more interested in solutions and learning any lessons that might be applicable elsewhere.

There have been some positive developments. A new bus users group has been set up by the council, which is starting to act as a good conduit for complaints. Arriva is now looking at adjusting some of the routes to ameliorate some of the major problems that have arisen. It is a helpful development that the remit of Passenger Focus has been broadened to include bus services, which have always been the Cinderella service compared with train services.

I appreciate that it is right for much of the detail to be resolved at the local level rather than coming before Parliament, but I have sought to raise this subject in the House because I think we can learn some lessons from this unhappy state of affairs that may be helpful across other areas of the country. The Minister has kindly indicated that he will look at the notification period and I hope that that might be extended to review the process of consultation, as different groups in the affected constituency must be involved if there is to be a major restructuring of the bus network. I suggest that that should include not just unitary authority councils, but parish and town councils, and I also suggest it should include the local hospital and GP practices, because if people are unable to get to their appointments in time, that is a serious public health issue. It is vital that schools are involved as well, because if pupils cannot get in to sit their exams on time, or simply cannot arrive on time for ordinary classes, that is an issue. Milton Keynes has such a low housing density that schools have large catchment areas, so pupils have to travel considerable distances.

There might have been more than 450 people at the meeting that my hon. Friend and I attended. Does he agree that they expressed great anger that there was almost no consultation and that they did not have the opportunity to make their voice heard about the changes that were made?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. If people had been consulted at the outset, many of these problems could have been avoided.

There is a trade-off between having a fast route between any two points in a city and having the route go through the main residential areas, but it is surely not beyond wit and wisdom to have a two-tier service with, perhaps, one express bus that does not call everywhere and the next bus as a stopping service that goes to all the different residential areas. These details should be worked out between the operators, the council and the different groups that I have identified, and I would also include local employers in the consultation. I am pleased that the coalition Government agreement has a provision to encourage greater co-operation between councils and bus operators, and I am interested to hear what further comments on that the Minister might be able to make.

Finally, I ask the Minister to take account of the evidence from Milton Keynes and other areas where there are bus problems and to look again at the effectiveness of the provisions of the Local Transport Act 2008, particularly in relation to quality partnerships and contracts. I know they were introduced fairly recently, but I think it is appropriate now to review their effectiveness and consider what further changes might be made.

The decentralisation Bill is due later this year. We want to encourage greater devolution and decentralisation, and also open-source planning that leads to properly sustainable communities. I hope that that Bill might be an appropriate vehicle through which to address the changes I have discussed in this debate.

I do not believe it is right for central Government to be overly prescriptive in determining what bus system operates in what area. What works in one area might not be applicable elsewhere, and, as I have said, Milton Keynes is unique in its design. However, I hope that by raising this subject I have brought to the Minister’s attention the fact that there is serious disquiet in Milton Keynes, and I would be grateful to learn of any steps he might take to encourage greater co-operation and consultation. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue, and I hope my postbag on it will start to decline after this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) on securing this Adjournment debate and on the effective way in which he presented his case. I understand that he is a keen marathon runner, so he will be quite used to making his journeys through urban areas at high speed on foot. However, for the rest of us who only run for office, public transport is often required for such journeys, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the subjects he has raised tonight.

Buses play a hugely important role in our transport system. More journeys are made each year on buses than on all other public transport modes put together. Where a bus network works well, the bus can provide more than mere convenience. It is no exaggeration to say that a good-quality bus service can be a lifeline, particularly for those who do not have access to a car.

The best bus networks exist where local government and operators work productively together. However, for this to happen, central Government need to provide an appropriate legislative framework that enables innovation and creativity from bus companies, and provides local authorities with the flexibility to use their local knowledge to manage their bus networks in a fair and logical way. Local government needs to work closely with operators and the travelling public to ensure that we have a local transport network that works for everyone, and transport operators need to listen to the views of their passengers to ensure that their decisions reflect those views and the views of locally elected representatives.

Cities and large towns evolve and grow, and it is inevitable that local transport provision changes to reflect this. This is especially true for ambitious cities such as Milton Keynes, as evidenced by the extensive redevelopment of the Milton Keynes Coachway station, to be completed later this year. I suspect that that project will bring huge benefits to the city, and I very much hope it will inspire other cities to consider similar projects.

However, in respect of the specific issues my hon. Friend raised, I acknowledge that when changes are made to timetables, they should be implemented in a way that minimises disruption for passengers. While there is currently no requirement for bus operators formally to consult local residents, we know that the best operators work closely with passenger groups and local authorities to ensure that they are listening to the voice of the passenger when these decisions are made.

I am aware of the particular public meeting to which my hon. Friend referred. I have in front of me an extract from his local paper, which points out that hundreds of people vented their anger at that meeting, which was held at Christ the Cornerstone church on the Friday in question. I note the concern expressed there, as reported in the press: that there was no public consultation before the changes were imposed, that several services were axed, and that route changes left some estates bypassed altogether. The fact that hundreds turned up to that meeting demonstrates the importance of the bus network to Milton Keynes, and the wish for people to be properly consulted about bus changes in their areas.

Of course, there are times when decisions are made that inconvenience local residents. Even when a rerouted bus service results in more people having access to local transport, that is of cold comfort to those who find that the bus that used to stop outside their front door now does not pass through their neighbourhood. I certainly agree that if we end up with expensive signs and new bus stops that become redundant, that is not a good use of public or private money. However, I am keenly aware of the importance of stability for passengers. A passenger who catches a bus today wants to know that the route will still be running next week. With stability in the network, passengers are able to build up a habit of using the bus, and are even able to look further afield for employment opportunities, confident that the bus they rely on to commute will not vanish overnight. This predictability is of course in the interests of the bus companies themselves as they seek to grow their business.

The Competition Commission is undertaking a large-scale inquiry into the bus industry. Competition is, I know, a concern of some residents in areas such as Milton Keynes, where bus services are largely provided by a single bus operator. I do not believe that it would be right or sensible tonight to pre-empt the commission’s report by introducing wholesale regulatory changes before it has published its findings. My hon. Friend referred to the Local Transport Act 2008 and mentioned the possibility of a review. In a sense, a review is taking place through the commission’s inquiry, which is looking at the regulation of the bus industry. That, in turn, will advise Government on whether further changes are necessary or not. We await the results of that with interest.

However, clearly some areas can be considered while the inquiry is ongoing, and my hon. Friend has raised some of them today. The Department for Transport has just completed its own consultation to explore some ways in which changes to the regulatory framework may help. For example, we sought views on whether it would be appropriate to extend the notice that an operator is required to provide before altering an existing service—my hon. Friend covered that point in his contribution. Currently, a bus company in England is required to notify the traffic commissioner 56 days in advance of any change. That is not the case in Scotland, where a bus company is required to have provided an additional 14 days’ notice to the local authority before submitting such an application to the traffic commissioner. I can assure my hon. Friend that I am actively considering whether it would be appropriate to adopt a similar arrangement across England as well, and I hope to make an announcement shortly.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, local authorities already have a wide range of powers at their disposal, including the power to tender additional bus routes where they deem them to be necessary. That already happens in Milton Keynes, as it does right across the country, and I am sure that Milton Keynes council is examining the situation closely. I am informed that 17% of the bus mileage in his area is subsidised in this way; that figure is broadly in line with the national average outside London.

All local authorities in England have the powers to introduce different degrees of local regulation, through the use of a voluntary partnership agreement, the introduction of a quality partnership scheme or London-style franchising through the use of a quality contracts scheme. There is no reason why partnership agreements cannot include requirements for the operator to notify passengers before making changes to services or fares. So, in a sense, the tools to achieve what my hon. Friend wants are available if Milton Keynes council and others want to use them. In my view, local transport should, in the main, be managed at the local level, where local knowledge can be used to greatest effect. I can give him my assurance that the coalition Government are committed to this decentralisation.

I am aware that earlier this year the south-east regional transport board recommended the withdrawal of funding for the central Milton Keynes public transport improvement scheme, and that that came as a blow for Milton Keynes council, which had set a stretching target to increase bus patronage from 9.3 million in 2007-08 to 11 million in 2010-11. I am sure that the local authority is investigating whether it is possible to seek other routes for funding this proposal, either in its original form or some variant thereof. I understand that the council is looking at directing some of the revenue it receives from parking towards improvements in bus services, as well as seeking improvements in punctuality through its new punctuality improvement partnership, and I welcome that initiative.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget statement confirmed the coalition Government’s commitment to a number of major transport schemes, and I will take the opportunity to repeat that commitment today. It is not, however, only major urban transport investment that yields big results. In comparison with major projects such as the upgrade to Birmingham New Street station or the extension to the Manchester Metrolink, proposals to improve local bus services may seem, and indeed are, very small. But it is important that we do not lose sight of the significant impact, both positive and negative, that small changes can have.

Although every area of government is going to have to work in a more efficient way, a local bus network is vital to a local economy, as it provides access to employment, goods and services for a huge number of people and more than 5 billion passenger journeys a day are made on local buses alone, so we need to ensure that the investment in services continues. Altogether, local and central Government provide about £2.5 billion in support to the bus industry, and it is important that we not only continue to provide financial support for services, but ensure that this money is allocated in a way that provides the maximum benefit across the board. Bus service operators grant, for example, directly provides operators with more than £400 million in support for bus services. The benefits of that grant are clear: it ensures that the bus network remains as broad as possible, while keeping fares lower and bringing more people on to public transport, with the obvious benefits of reducing congestion, lowering carbon emissions and improving air quality in our towns and cities. However, no matter how clear the benefits of such investment are, it is important that the Government get as much value as possible from every pound invested in services and it may be that we can increase the benefits of this grant even further. My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that I am considering whether it would be sensible to reform the way this grant is allocated, to ensure that it provides the maximum possible benefit for passengers. In general, I am determined that we should have a bus system that delivers good value for the taxpayer and good value for the fare payer.

Let me pick up on one or two points that my hon. Friend raised. First, I am pleased that the Milton Keynes older persons forum has been so active in this matter and I want to pass on my thanks to its members for their efforts in this regard. I am pleased that the new bus users group has been established and I hope that what I have said tonight, coupled with the steps being taken locally in Milton Keynes, will mean that we end up with an improved bus service and more satisfaction than was clearly shown at the public meeting attended by my hon. Friend and others. I know that my hon. Friend has been active in this case with Arriva and I hope that he will continue to be so in the interests of his constituents. I am sure that he will, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) will do likewise.

In conclusion, I hope that this goes some way to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South and his colleagues that I am considering a number of different options for improvements to the way central Government can assist local authorities in managing their bus networks. I intend to make further statements to the House once I have come to a conclusion on the best way to achieve our shared aims.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.