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Bus Services

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

Bus services are an important part of our plans to help create growth and cut carbon, and they provide a lifeline to essential services for many people. The recent paper, “Green Light for Better Buses” sets out a comprehensive and balanced set of measures to help local authorities play their part in providing better, greener and more innovative bus services—new funding, better regulations, revised guidance and reformed subsidy arrangements. These proposals have been carefully formulated to attract more people on to buses, to ensure better value for the taxpayer and to give local transport authorities more influence over their local bus networks.

South Staffordshire district council and Staffordshire county council are shortly to launch South Staffordshire Connect, which will provide local transport for people to get to bus routes in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is the type of initiative that we need to promote right across the country?

I do agree. That is the sort of initiative that I am pleased to see some councils adopting, given the freedom that the Government are providing. Buses are a lifeline for people who do not have access to a car. I would be delighted to help my hon. Friend launch this scheme on 13 June.

One of the biggest problems with the bus cuts is their impact on young people. This week, I received an e-mail from a young constituent saying that back in 2010, his bus fare to school was £7.50, but it has now become, in his words, “a huge £12”. Cuts to local authorities and bus grants are having a disproportionate effect on young people, so what are the Government doing to help young people by ensuring that they have access to affordable transport?

I accept that there is an issue for young people, which is why I have taken steps to ensure that young people came along to talk to the operators and local authorities at the bus forum I hold on a six-monthly basis. It is also why I discussed the matter with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which is now taking steps to try to get a better deal for young people. I have had discussions with the confederation about that very matter.

The Minister will be aware of a recent report from scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which estimated that combustion exhausts cause 5,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. What steps is he taking to make sure that local bus provision is with more efficient buses, and that old buses are retrofitted to improve air quality standards?

I am happy to say that we have recently announced the winners of the third round of the green bus fund. Because of our prudent financial management as a Department, we were able to increase it from £20 million to £31 million. We have also provided money to retrofit buses in London to deal with the air pollution problem there. That is a demonstration of the fact that we are committed to bus travel—both to help create growth and to cut carbon.

The Minister’s new funding pots are like an attempt to use sticking plasters to cover a gaping wound—the wound inflicted by his decision to cut support for buses by half a billion pounds, which has resulted in not improved but disappearing services. “The picture is bleak.” Those are not my words, but the words of the boss of Arriva. Page after page reveals the effect of the Government’s cuts: “frequency reduced”, “evening and Sunday service withdrawn”, “cancelled owing to lack of funding”. Why does the Minister not admit that his policies have been a disaster for bus users?

I will not admit it because it is entirely untrue. In fact, those policies have been a success. Recent figures from local authorities show that the average bus mileage is relatively unchanged, which suggests that there have not been the cuts that the Opposition are so keen to talk up. The industry itself has congratulated the Government on their new bus policy, as, indeed, have local authorities. Perhaps the hon. Lady should pay more attention to what the industry and users say, which, by and large, is supportive of what the Government are doing.

According to the Department’s own figures, traffic volumes will increase by 40% by 2035. Is not the simple, plain fact of the matter that unless we ensure that more people travel on buses, the country will be gridlocked?

It is true that we must have a balanced transport policy, and part of that involves maximising the use of public transport. That is why we have invested more in rail travel than any Government since Victorian times, and why we are now investing massively in buses as well. For instance, £70 million has been invested in better bus areas, £41 million in the green bus fund, £560 million in the local sustainable transport fund, £20 million in community bus services, and £15 million in smart ticketing technology. If I go on much longer, Mr Speaker, you will tell me to curtail my remarks.