[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, for what I think is the second time. I am pleased to have secured a debate on the availability of bus services, an issue that affects Members of all parties, across the whole country.
Bus services are vital lifelines that connect together the places in our constituencies. They take people to work, children to school and shoppers to the high street, but as we all recognise from the experience in our localities, the frequency, quality and affordability of local bus services is, on the whole, decreasing.
In Corby in east Northamptonshire, the local county council has cut its subsidy by 55% since 2010—the largest such cut anywhere in the country. At the same time, Northamptonshire county council has imposed on my constituents a programme of switching off street lights, which has resulted in half of all the lights going out. With no buses and no street lights, it is no wonder that many of my constituents have told me that they feel like a prisoner in their own home. If we take into account the poor state of repair of our roads and the giant potholes we see all over Corby and east Northamptonshire, it is clear that road conditions and the local transport infrastructure are in a much worse condition today than when the Government came to power.
Before I turn to specific issues in my constituency, I want to speak briefly about the national context. Across England fares have been rising, services have been cut and passenger numbers are falling. The shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), made a series of freedom of information requests to upper-tier councils earlier this year. He found that local authority bus subsidies across shire counties and unitary authorities have been cut by 23% in real terms since 2010-11, and has said:
“It couldn’t be clearer to local residents that vital front-line services are disappearing dramatically as cuts to councils intensify.”
He also warned, as I do, that elderly and disabled residents were being left stranded at home. The Local Government Association has said that
“elderly and disabled people will be left…with a free bus pass in one hand but no local buses to travel on in the other.”
The Campaign for Better Transport said in December last year that cuts to bus services were reaching what it called “critical levels”, and warned that soon whole networks would begin to disappear.
The Government cannot claim that they were not warned about the effects of cuts to bus subsidies. A report published by the Select Committee on Transport in 2011 warned that cuts to council budgets by central Government, combined with changes to other support mechanisms such as the bus service operators grant and concessionary fares, had led to some authorities withdrawing subsidised bus services with “inadequate or no consultation”—those were the Committee’s words—affecting some of the most vulnerable people in society.
The Minister will no doubt try to tell us that responsibility for such decisions lies with local authorities, but as the Local Government Association points out, councils know how important buses are for their communities and local economies and are trying to protect them. However, councils have had a 40% core funding reduction over this Parliament—the biggest funding reduction in the public sector. People should be in no doubt that cuts to bus services across the country are a result of the policies of this Government. There have been massive cuts to council budgets, which are compounded by their hugely unfair distribution; some of the wealthiest areas of the country have seen their resources increase. This is from a Government who are putting a tax cut for the richest ahead of the services that many people rely on.
The Minister will no doubt tell us that it is all okay. That is simply another indication to my constituents of just out of touch the Government are. Out in the real world, people know there are fewer services. I was door-knocking in my constituency recently and met a gentleman who pointed to the bus stop outside his house and told me that it had been replaced. Now, we might have thought that he would be happy, but he said that no buses had run down his street for years, so to him it was an insult that the bus stop had been replaced. To me, that is a symbol of the Government policy on buses: a new bus stop, but no buses. All of this is happening despite projections of 40% more traffic on the road by 2035—those are the Government’s own projections—at a time when rising fuel costs make it much more expensive for people to fill up the tank in their car, and under a Government who promised to be the greenest ever, yet are allowing bus services to be cut when those services can help reduce carbon by keeping cars off the road.
Bus services are vital for many people across my constituency, which is very large and contains five towns—one large industrial town, Corby, and four smaller market towns—and many villages over a large area of Northamptonshire. Many constituents have written or spoken to me about the lack of services and the problems they experience with those services that remain. I have travelled around by bus to talk to passengers and have conducted an online survey of people’s views and experiences. Over 80% of my constituents told me that they have noticed a decrease in services over recent years. Less than a quarter told me that they were happy with the quality and affordability of bus services in their area. Many people told me that they would use services more if they were more frequent.
My concern is that if things continue as they are, those who say that they use services sometimes will become “never” users, as we go further on a downward spiral, with cuts to subsidies meaning ever poorer provision of services, which in turn drives away passengers. The cuts may look okay on a spreadsheet, but a self-fulfilling prophecy comes about: if people are less able to access or rely on bus services, usage goes down and down until no services are left. Some constituents have told me that they can make a journey one way, and so might be able to get from their village to, for example, Peterborough; but what is the use of that if they have no confidence that they will be able to get home again? They therefore stop using the buses and either do not travel at all or find some alternative means.
There is another way: we could make those people who tell me that they sometimes travel on buses become regular passengers. Some 90% of the constituents who filled out my survey said that they would use buses more if services were better. We see examples of that all around the country, not least here in London, where Members of Parliament can see how beneficial regular and reliable bus services are to people.
My constituents raised a number of areas where they would like to see improvements. A key issue was having more suitable bus shelters, including ones that have seats for people to use while they wait and give better shelter from wind and rain in the winter. There are issues for wheelchair users and those who are blind and deaf. I know that many Members from across the House will have taken part in a talking buses awareness event organised by the Guide Dogs charity. I am pleased that my party has promised that we will seek to expand the UK fleet of buses fitted with audio-visual systems.
Many constituents raised concerns about the lack of bus services after 7 pm or 8 pm and on Sundays. They told me about many specific services. In east Northamptonshire, those include the Nene Valley Traveller service, or No. 23, from Peterborough to Oundle via Wansford, Kings Cliffe and Nassington, which was one of the first casualties of the county council’s cuts. That cut has left the entire northern part of my constituency with no public transport except for services subsidised by local supermarkets on a weekly basis.
Constituents have told me that they would like the No. 49 and No. 50 Stagecoach services to run much later in the evening. The last bus from Kettering to Irthlingborough, for example, runs at 10 minutes to 8 each weekday, so people cannot travel and access services later in the evening.
People want a direct route to Peterborough from Raunds and Thrapston at weekends, which would be hugely beneficial. There is demand for Sunday services to Irchester and Raunds and a better service to Finedon on Sundays. The X4 service between Oundle and Peterborough stops too early in the evening, and constituents have told me that that means having to spend upwards of £30 on a taxi from the train station to Oundle when the buses stop running. My constituent Amanda Swain of Thrapston told me that her son had to obtain special dispensation from his school to arrive after assembly because he could not catch a bus from Thrapston to Kettering early enough to get him there.
My constituents in Corby would like a direct bus service from the Kingswood estate to Asda. At the moment, they have to take two buses, sometimes with a 30-minute delay in-between. They also want a bus service from Kingswood to the Earlstrees estate, because many people work in the town. Throughout Corby, the issue of late buses comes up time and again.
Richard Mills, a constituent, told me that the £2.10 all-day ticket—I purchased one the other day and travelled around Corby—is real value, but we need a better bus service after 6 pm because people have to go to and from shifts at work. Whether they are at work or having a day out, if they return to the train station in Corby after 6 pm, there is no bus to take them home.
I have been told that the X1 is also bad and never runs on time. It takes people to hospital in Kettering, so it is particularly important. My constituents are disappointed that there is only one bus shelter at Oakley Vale for the 19 service to Corby town.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
My constituents have been telling me about a range of issues locally, and I want to finish by putting a few more of those on the record. Of course, I will then be raising them with Stagecoach, Centrebus and others. If there is any way in which the Minister can assist us, too, that will of course be welcome, but it seems to me that many of them are about looking locally at the services and whether we can improve particular services.
The X4 route in Corby no longer uses Colyers avenue, which is disappointing for those residents. There is a lack of service to the Patrick road area of Corby—an issue that many people have raised with me. Sionah Rielly has told me that Stephenson way does not have a very good service and has suggested that it would be a particular improvement to have a service that goes to Asda in the town. The CallConnect service is very useful, I am told. Many people find it useful, but it does not provide access to the railway station at Corby. That means that many of my constituents who use that service have to rely on taxis, which are expensive.
My constituent, Ann-Marie Leonard, summarised all the issues when she told me:
“It’s a real problem that the local buses all finish running by 7pm. Unless you use a car or a taxi you can’t go to the theatre, adult education, swimming, tennis club, bingo, Asda late night shopping, visit friends, support elderly relatives…well, anything! Kids can’t get the bus home from youth clubs or Adrenaline Alley or sports clubs. And now there are medical centres that open until 8pm”—
we are pleased that we have the Corby urgent care centre—
“but you can’t have a late appointment if there isn’t a bus running that late. It’s like living under curfew”.
Corby’s local economy is such that many people work shifts, often finishing after the buses stop running or before they start running in the mornings. That means that lots of my constituents walk home or travel by bicycle. That is okay on a long summer day, such as today, for some of my constituents, but in the winter, when it is cold and dark and the street lights are out, my constituents are rightly concerned about their travel to and from work.
Then there are those travelling further afield. Paula Boulton told me that Corby is in effect
“marooned from the rest of the county”.
Anyone who can brave the X4 via Wellingborough to get to the county town of Northampton, she says, is a hardy soul.
There are two main operators in my constituency. Centrebus runs through Thrapston and Raunds and has, more than any other bus service, been causing my constituents particularly high levels of grief. Lateness and breakdowns of buses have been experienced frequently, as has the failure of buses even to turn up. I have provided details to Centrebus of specific occasions when buses have not turned up, but I have not had a very good response. It has shrugged off those experiences as isolated incidents and denied the existence of any real problems, yet every time I have a surgery in Thrapston, for example, constituents will come to tell me about continuing problems with Centrebus. That is partly about the ageing vehicles that operate on the route. That is why I have written to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to raise my constituents’ concerns about the vehicles themselves: it has a role in regulating or inspecting the quality of buses used for public transport purposes. I will follow that up, but I would be grateful if the Minister could provide me with any help or advice that I can share with my constituents about the quality of the buses themselves, because that is important to the reliability of the services.
I can contrast that with Stagecoach. I was delighted to help it to launch a new fleet of double-decker buses. It was very proud of the handmade Italian leather seats. They did look very smart. They are mostly modern buses. Those buses were in east Northamptonshire. The bus that I rode on yesterday in Corby was also a very good modern bus.
I have received some complaints about services from Stagecoach, and of course it would expect me to acknowledge that its services are not always up to scratch, but I have to say that I have been incredibly impressed with it—with its staff, its bus drivers and its managing director. I heard on Radio Northampton the other day, in response to my questioning the level of cuts in the county, the county council cabinet member for transport, Councillor Michael Clarke, saying that the level of cuts to services has not been equivalent to the level of cuts to funding. He is right, but my view is that the county council takes little credit for that. It is actually because of the way in which Stagecoach has worked to keep a lot of the routes going and to keep the network going as far as possible.
I have been very impressed by the fact that Stagecoach has been very open to discussing with me the concerns that constituents have raised. For example, there was a campaign in Corby a year ago, when significant changes were proposed, and the managing director, Steve Burd, came to my office, talked to me about those concerns and addressed many of them as far as he could. But clearly Stagecoach is a commercial company. It is trying to optimise what is delivered in the public interest while of course having its own targets to maintain as a profit-making entity. I think that it does that as well as we could expect it to. I wanted to put that on the record.
Sometimes overlooked in debates about the availability of bus services is how important they are to young people. Before I close, I would like to raise some issues that affect young people in my constituency, many of whom use buses to get to school, whether they are going to schools in Corby or across east Northamptonshire. For example, young constituents in places such as Kings Cliffe and Thrapston travel to Prince William school and constituents in Irthlingborough and Raunds travel to Kettering, Wellingborough or even to Corby to access services.
There is one particular issue that I shall ask both Front Benchers to think about. It may have been raised with them previously. I am talking about what seems to parents and young people I meet to be an inconsistency in relation to the fact that young people are now required to stay on at school until they are 18. I believe that giving our young people that extra opportunity in terms of education and training is the right thing to do in order to have the skilled work force that this country needs, but they do have to pay the costs of transport, which can be very high for them or for their parents, from the age of 16 to 18, and that is of course if the services are available. I would be grateful for any response on that and any encouragement to my constituents that there may be some way of dealing with those concerns.
Looking forward, I am very keen to try to make services better. At local level, I will work closely and constructively with Stagecoach, and, as I said, it is open to finding new ways to improve services. Indeed, when I have talked to people from Stagecoach about businesses that might want to make contributions, they have been very open to looking at that and whether it could be viable.
Corby borough council plays an important role. In the past, it has negotiated section 106 agreements that have helped to fund bus services, including, for example, services up to Priors Hall. I will be asking that council and East Northants district council what further plans they have to help to maintain local services. In east Northants, the new Rushden Lakes development could be a source of both funding and demand, possibly acting as a form of local hub for services. I am keen that we look at and investigate that and see whether it would help us to improve bus services and, in particular, the connections in that part of the county.
Community and voluntary transport schemes have a role to play. In my view, they should be in addition to, rather than a replacement for, core public bus services, but they do have a role to play. I recently opened the new CANDO day centre for older people in Raunds. It has volunteer drivers who provide transport so that people can get there. I pay tribute to the people involved in that—the volunteers. In Corby, there is interest in developing a new community transport scheme. Again, I would appreciate any advice from the Front Benchers on how we can turn that into a reality and particularly on whether there are any grants that could help or any good practical examples that we could look at to help us to find a way forward.
In the longer term, the key is to take a much more strategic approach to how we provide bus services. Quality partnerships can be important to that, and there are quality partnerships across the country, but I want to see quality contracts being adopted. Those were a welcome idea on the part of the previous Government, but experience shows that it has been difficult in practice to get them agreed locally, although I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) is going to tell us that there will be a beacon in the north-east that we can all look to in order to see how to get them agreed. I am encouraged by the fact that Labour Front Benchers are looking at how a future Labour Government could make the adoption of quality contracts possible across the country, making them much more widespread.
I hope today’s debate will keep bus services high on the agenda. I hope local operators and other local partners will respond to many of the issues I have put on the record, which constituents have raised with me. I would like to think that Northamptonshire county council will take some notice and consider the effect of its decision to cut bus services more than any other county. I will not hold my breath, but I hope the county council will listen, because we are talking about not just my constituents, but the council’s residents. I hope that local operators—particularly Stagecoach, which is generally good—and other key local partners, including district councils, businesses and the voluntary sector, will work with me. Together, we can improve the bus services in our local area, despite the difficult financial context we face.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration.
Let me, at the outset, set the scene in Northern Ireland: transport is a devolved matter, so decisions lie very much with the Minister in Northern Ireland who is responsible for it. We face many issues, including making transport work for those with disabilities. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raised are the same as those we face in Northern Ireland. Although transport is a devolved matter, the issues in Northern Ireland are very similar, and I will outline them.
The debate gives me an opportunity to highlight an issue close to my heart: the lack of rural public transport in my constituency. Strangford is made up of a mixture of urban and rural, isolated areas, and I suppose most Members here would say the same. That clearly illustrates the issue for those who do not have their own transport and who do not, unfortunately, have access to public transport in the way they should.
I am well aware of the beauty of living in the country, but I am also aware of the drawbacks, and one of the main issues is rural isolation. Even small errands can prove difficult for some of my constituents, never mind travelling to and from work or school. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issues that are paramount for young people, and I want to touch on those.
From those with a passion for being green, I can already hear the cry, “Get on your bike!”, but we cannot do the same as Boris Johnson here in London. It is not possible to cycle, because people have to take long rural roads to get to their work or school, and there are also the safety issues that come from that. Cycling is not an option for my constituents, and I do not believe it is an option for the hon. Gentleman in his constituency.
Many of our country roads are not suitable for bikes, and although the Government have done a lot to encourage cyclists on to the roads, through the use of cycle lanes, cycle lanes do not stretch into the most rural parts of Strangford, so cycling is often simply too dangerous to be a serious option when it comes to getting to and from work.
The only other form of public transport is the bus, but the timetables and routes are not particularly convenient. The hon. Gentleman outlined the issue with timetables, and I am sure that those who speak after me will do the same. If we can get everyone to use the buses, they will be profitable. The problem is that buses are not always available at the time people need them. The result is that services are full, and that is apparent in my constituency.
For example, a constituent from Kircubbin cannot get a bus straight to Belfast and has to change in Newtownards. Furthermore, if that constituent works in Newtownards until 9 pm, they have to wait until 10.35 pm—almost 11 pm—to get a bus to Portaferry, arriving in Kircubbin only at 11.5 pm. That illustrates the need for public transport to be available at times when people need it.
Such situations are simply ridiculous, particularly for many 16 and 17-year-olds who work part time in the town and rely on the bus to get to and from work. I am pleased that the economic outlook for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is much better than it was and that unemployment is dropping, and we all acknowledge that. However, I am talking about people with part-time jobs—they have a foot on the ladder and they can go on to other employment when it comes along—who cannot, unfortunately, use buses because they do not always run when those people are doing their shifts.
The Government are trying to encourage public transport in an effort to become greener, but how can we encourage it when the timetables for rural constituents are so poor or young people are forced not to work because they are afraid of travelling home late at night? I must underline that, because there is a safety issue particularly for young girls and young ladies when they are travelling late at night through a town. Again, if the buses were earlier, that would suit them best.
We are bringing in park-and-ride schemes in Northern Ireland—they are probably in many other parts of the United Kingdom—but they are not yet available everywhere. Those who come from the peninsula can park their cars in Newtonards and get the bus to Belfast, therefore reducing the gridlock in the city of Belfast. Again, that is a positive way of getting more people to use public transport, which will then be profitable. We must look at that.
Unsurprisingly, people are left reliant on cars, but they are not the answer. Not only are they not environmentally friendly but the high cost of fuel puts pressure on families and can lead to rural isolation. That is yet another aspect of the lack of flexible transport links.
Taking children in my constituency to the Boys’ Brigade, the Girls’ Brigade, after-school clubs or sports activities is a costly venture. Sports clubs often require children to attend two afternoons’ training and a Saturday match—six trips over three days. That is in addition to taking the kids to social events. Those of us here who are parents will know very well that parents are really a taxi service for their children—I am not, but my wife is—and that is also one of the negatives of living in the countryside. For many families, these journeys simply cost too much, and parents and children really feel the impact of rural isolation. It is even more difficult for the elderly or vulnerable, who do not necessarily have access to cars.
The lack of flexible bus times between Newtownards, Belfast and the Ards peninsula is completely unacceptable and unworkable for those who depend on buses to get to their jobs. Newtownards is a central business district, and the buy-out of Hughes Insurance, which employs more than 310 staff, by the very successful American firm Liberty Mutual should attest to that. Newtownards is a vital feeder for Belfast, with huge numbers of workers and schoolchildren travelling back and forth each day.
We must consider how best to use money to enable people to get back on public transport. One way would be to ring-fence funding for rural transport schemes and improvements in bus timetables and routes. In Northern Ireland, including in my constituency, we also have the Rural Community Network—a very good group of people who interact with charities, voluntary organisations and rural community organisations. There is some subsidy to enable the network to reach out to rural areas. In his response, perhaps the Minister can tell us whether there is a similar scheme on the UK mainland. If so, how does it work? The scheme in Northern Ireland at least addresses some of the issues, if not all of them.
In another part of Strangford, the story is the same. Carrowdore is a small village just outside Newtownards that does not have a pharmacy—services are not always available in parts of my constituency. The closest surgery is not within walking distance, so many elderly or vulnerable constituents who require frequent prescriptions have no option but to wait for half a day for a bus so that they can get to their nearest pharmacy.
I once went on a bus journey with a constituent who lived in Portaferry, and I mention it just to illustrate what the problems are and how acute they can be. My constituent had to go to a hospital appointment in Lisburn. It took seven hours there and back, and it cost £39.40. It takes me half that time to drive to the airport, wait for boarding, fly to London and get from Heathrow to Parliament. To illustrate that point, I went with my constituent—we wanted to highlight transport costs and the difficulty of going for hospital treatment.
That state of affairs is unacceptable for someone who is ill, and it needs to be addressed. The groups who are affected are those that society and elected representatives must protect. We should make life easier for them in any way we can. How can we make a difference to the lives of those who live in our rural communities—the children who cannot afford to go to after-school activities and clubs, the stay-at-home mums who have no car and no opportunity to meet other mums for some adult company and social interaction, the people who are ill or disabled and cannot drive and who no longer have an affordable taxi service, and the elderly who often end up all but imprisoned in their own homes? What difference can we make? A reduction in fuel duty—I know that is not the Minister’s prerogative—would be a step in the right direction for those of us in Northern Ireland who have an issue with the cost of running a car, but more needs to be done. Specific ring-fencing of funding for my rural constituents is needed so that bus services in rural communities can be made more frequent.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby on obtaining a debate on the matter, and apologise, Ms Dorries, because as I said to you previously I have somewhere else to be; but, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the film, “I’ll be back.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this important debate. Our constituencies are in many ways different, being at opposite ends of the country, but we seem to share many of the same problems with local bus services.
My constituency is composed of both urban and semi-rural areas—towns, villages and estates spread out across the city of Sunderland—but what we have in common throughout the constituency is the fact that we do not enjoy the benefits of a rail or light rail connection. We entirely depend on local bus services, which is why I have campaigned on the issue since I was elected to Parliament.
For metropolitan areas such as Tyne and Wear, there is a solution: the introduction of a quality contract scheme—a mechanism that would allow the local transport authority to reregulate local bus services if certain criteria were met. That new system would have routes set by the transport authority, with bus operators bidding in an open competition to run services. I am proud that, despite fierce opposition from bus operators, and threats of legal action, the combined authority in Tyne and Wear continues to lead the way. I shall briefly outline why I believe such a scheme has the potential to benefit constituents in other areas, too.
I should perhaps at this point mention that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Corby and I share many problems with bus services, our views diverge when it comes to Stagecoach. I am pleased about its helpful, consensual approach in east Northamptonshire, and I hope it may take the same approach in Tyne and Wear as we press ahead with options for the future of local bus services. I am pleased at my hon. Friend’s experience and I hope that in the fullness of time I shall share that positive experience of co-operation from bus companies in trying to deliver the best to our constituents.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for quality contracts, and I agree with her. The Souter family who own Stagecoach have become billionaires since buses were deregulated. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows that privatising and deregulating bus services has not helped the travelling public, but has allowed people such as the Souter family to game the system and make bus services worse?
It is my view that deregulation has failed in my area. I am not opposed to bus operators making a profit, although I think the profits made by operators in my region, particularly Stagecoach, are excessive. I want some of that profit to be reinvested into the region and into subsidising services that my constituents depend on to get to hospital, school and other places. I have been disappointed by the approach taken by Stagecoach, but I appreciate that there is much at stake. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby mentioned, many people are paying careful attention to see what Tyne and Wear will decide, and no doubt Stagecoach has been motivated in its approach by that clear factor. I hope that we will find a way forward.
An investigation in 2011 by the Competition Commission was highly critical of deregulated bus services. It found that there was limited competition between operators, which tended to result in higher prices and lower quality for passengers. The report also found that head-to-head competition for services was unlikely between dominant operators. There was heavy criticism because some bus companies were accused of colluding to avoid direct competition altogether, which resulted in geographic market segregation, including in my area. Just as in the energy market, a small number of companies dominate the bus market; we all know them. A quality contract scheme would create a level playing field, allowing new entrants to break into the market; it would open up competition and deliver better value for the taxpayer and passengers.
Such a scheme would also provide long-term security to bus operators, their staff and bus passengers. Too often, bus companies change or even scrap routes, which frustrates passengers and leaves people isolated and cut off from vital services. It also puts jobs at risk. A clear example of that can be found at the Doxford international business park in my constituency, which houses thousands of staff, many of whom are employed in contact centres. Businesses and staff have told me of their concerns that buses run infrequently after the main evening rush hour and that services do not fit with shift patterns. That leaves staff who work shifts with little choice but to travel by car or risk waiting for an infrequent bus service.
On Friday I visited EE, one of the major businesses that employs staff at Doxford, and heard at first hand what the situation means for staff: those who finish shifts at 8 pm run—literally—out of the door and catch the bus at five past 8. If they miss it, they face a lengthy wait for the next bus. Often staff must come to work far earlier than their shift start time, because unless they catch the hourly bus service they risk the consequences of being late for work. No doubt that affects staff retention as well as business growth and our ability to support the growth of jobs in the region. As we know, the north-east still faces big economic challenges and is the region of the country with the highest unemployment rate. We need to support business growth and job creation, but a public transport system that can support that is essential.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Corby about the challenges for disabled passengers, and particularly those who are blind or partially sighted. I recently took part in a guided walk, which was facilitated by Guide Dogs, to get an understanding of how difficult and disorienting it can be for blind and partially-sighted passengers when they try to access bus services. I travelled on a Go-Ahead bus that was fitted with audiovisual information. I recognise the importance of extending that facility, which is quite unusual in my area. The bus was one of the express bus services that offers it, and although it was far from perfect it is a step in the right direction. Bus operators must do far more to recognise many passengers’ additional needs and make sure that public transport is accessible to everyone.
We have a long way to go on fares and ticketing. A benefit of a quality contract system would be the possibility of introducing a London-style Oyster scheme. Passengers would then have the best fare worked out for them automatically. At the moment there is a huge array of options, with a confusing price structure and different operators offering different fares and tickets that do not work across buses. That discourages people from using buses. Far more must be done to encourage people to use buses, but if that is to happen fares must be affordable and simple. Integrated ticketing is also vital.
Understandably, there is a national focus on our current rail infrastructure, and I agree with that. However, very little attention has been paid to what happens when commuters reach their final rail stop and are confronted with the reality of local bus services or, indeed, to what happens when there is no rail link, only buses, as in my area.
I believe deregulation has failed. Bus companies have a social responsibility to local communities, but, sadly, too many fail to deliver. They vehemently oppose solutions in my area that would give local people a greater say. Their negative campaigning, scaremongering and threats of legal action have gone far beyond rational opposition and are irresponsible. We need action now to help communities and to grow the economy. It is clear to me that that can best be achieved through a quality contract scheme and I hope that later this year Tyne and Wear will be the first area to proceed with one.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing the debate. He described in some detail the circumstances in his region, Northamptonshire, demonstrating the trueness of the phrase “All politics is local”. The information that he drew on came from the excellent freedom of information request made by the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who discovered that Northamptonshire was the hardest hit of all boroughs, with 55% of its funding for local bus services cut since the coalition came to power in 2010.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby also made the point that the issue truly is a national one. He discussed the challenge faced by the most vulnerable—the elderly and the disabled—as well as issues relating to quality of life, and spoke eloquently of a constituent who saw a new bus stop outside his house when no bus had gone past for years.
I also pay tribute to the other two Members who spoke. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) underlined the fact that bus services are truly a United Kingdom issue and eloquently described the effect on those in rural and sparsely populated areas in his constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) championed the idea of the Tyne and Wear combined authority taking forward a quality contract system. She rightly made the point that constituencies that are urban and semi-rural and that have no light rail connections are particularly vulnerable to the problems in the current context. As she said, we want companies to get a reasonable return on their money, but what is actually delivered is often not reasonable. Excessive profits must be reinvested into the community. Her reference to the Competition Commission report reminded us of some of the issues at stake.
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is an indication of the exploitation of the travelling public that goes on outside the regulated system in London that the profits made by private bus companies in places such as Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester and Merseyside are between 25% and 50% greater than for the same companies operating in London? That is indicative of a failed system that is exploiting the travelling public in the English regions.
My hon. Friend serves with great distinction on the Transport Committee. He highlights a key issue for us all to ponder. If things can be done in London, they should certainly be examined elsewhere, particularly in areas such as Greater Manchester—I speak as a native Mancunian—where the tradition of good, strong, integrated public transport is sometimes hobbled by practices he mentioned.
All regions have seen support for local services stretched as never before in recent memory, losing an average of 25% of bus funding since 2010. Yet buses remain the most frequently used mode of public transport. Their use is widespread and important outside of as well as in London and our major cities, where media coverage of transport issues is sometimes focused. They are vital in both urban and rural areas, and are a lifeline for groups such as the elderly and disabled people. They also offer opportunities for all passengers to expand their horizons and engage socially in local areas and further afield.
The previous Labour Government showed an unprecedented commitment to strengthening bus services throughout the country. In 1997, the overall level of Government subsidy for bus services—including public transport, the bus service operators grant and concessionary fares—stood at less than £1 million; by the current decade it had risen to more than £2.3 billion. The present Government did not inherit a situation in which buses were a second-class service with a disintegrating network and fleet of vehicles, but, sadly, their cuts to the local government grant and lack of forethought about their effect on local transport demonstrate that they have reverted to an isolated and siloed vision of what public transport can do, rather than seeing it as the environmentally friendly, efficient and inclusive driver of economic growth that it should be.
Campaigning groups such as the Campaign for Better Transport have done some excellent work, particularly in highlighting the value of supported bus services. Such routes are not believed by operators to be independently viable, but often serve the hardest to reach and most isolated communities. The CBT’s research, published earlier this year in the report “Buses in Crisis”, highlighted that in 2013-14 almost 50% of local authorities cut supported bus services, at a total loss of £17 million. Since 2010, more than £56 million has been cut from supported bus services, with many routes and services being cut completely. No wonder that in his foreword to the report the chief executive of the CBT, Stephen Joseph, highlighted the impact of those cuts on two particular groups:
“young people unable to access their place of education or training”
“older people who are left in isolation after their lifeline to the outside world has been cut.”
Supported services are particularly important for the elderly. The difficulty of accessing health services can mean that conditions go untreated and undiagnosed, or that the taxpayer ends up paying more for ambulance trips and unnecessary overnight hospital stays because of a lack of transport options. The difficulty of maintaining social links where public transport is poor reduces quality of life and can anger families, especially those in rural areas who cannot easily see their elderly relatives.
The local economy also suffers as shopping centres and services are made inaccessible. Age UK’s report, “Missed opportunities: the impact on older people of cuts to rural bus services”, brings into stark relief the many facets of isolation that the elderly can experience when services are cut; in some places a taxi to the theatre could cost 10% of their weekly pension. People with disabilities also rely on bus services and are hardest hit when support routes are closed, for many of the same reasons. I will come later to other approaches that can improve the services used by disabled people, but the fundamental point is that the service must be operating in the first place.
As we have heard, young people also suffer when services are cut: jobs and training in hard-to-reach areas can no longer be pursued. Young people are among the biggest users of bus services, as the National Union of Students has pointed out. More than 2 million young people come from low-income households, and 64% of jobseekers either have no access to a vehicle or cannot drive. The role that the bus can play is clear: a joined-up network allows aspirations to thrive and prevents young people from being unable to take up job opportunities. It also boosts their productivity, and it is estimated that £1 of public investment in buses can provide between £3 and £5-worth of wider benefits.
We all know from our experience in our constituencies that bus travel is key for young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby referred to his experience, and recently I have had a number of meetings with young people in which they have all said that the issue is not simply not being able to get about socially; bus services are a lifeline to their college, as well as to get to job interviews and eventually to take up work. It really is a key issue. My hon. Friend was right to highlight the inconsistency of requiring young people to stay in education until they are 18 when they do not have the wherewithal to do so.
The provision of transport in rural areas, which has already been touched on, can also become a matter of inequality. Recent research by the Centre for Social Justice showed that people who live in rural areas can spend between 20% and 30% more on transport than those in urban households. Such areas therefore have more to lose than most when support for local bus services is reduced. As a former shadow further education Minister, I know how crucial that can be for young people in rural areas who want to access college courses. Campuses in rural areas often require a five to 10 mile journey, as opposed to a one to two mile journey in urban areas.
We also have a right to expect quality provision from bus operators because public subsidy accounts for 45% of bus operators’ revenues. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South on the situation in Tyne and Wear are pertinent. Virtually all the major bus companies have pointed out that cuts at that level have inhibited their ability to provide services. The example of her county council is not isolated. There has been a 50% subsidy cut in Suffolk, a 40% subsidy cut in Hertfordshire and a 30% subsidy cut in Somerset. They are all Conservative-controlled authorities in which issues of social cohesion for the elderly and economic opportunity for the young have not been sufficient to retain the subsidies. Those authorities’ own Government have made their ability to do so even harder.
I commend colleagues who have stood up for their local services, and I commend my hon. Friends who have spoken today. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) has been fighting for bus services in her constituency, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) has been vocal about services in his area.
What other pressures do local authorities face, and what powers do they have to respond? The LGA has raised concerns that funding has been cut by £261 million and that often it cannot do much about it. Concessionary fares and supported services must work in tandem, rather than competing for an ever-reduced pool of money. People continue to receive the benefits of the bus pass, but we must ensure that its funding reflects the effects of social and independent living. We want actively to explore what more we can do to incentivise and extend bus support for young people so that we make a further impact to bridge the gap to jobs and skills and, incidentally, to make a real impact on economic growth.
Current contract arrangements give little power or incentive for local authorities to have mechanisms to maintain protected services, and the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby on quality control are highly relevant. We would increase the amount of money devolved to regional bodies, which would be a major driver of new initiatives and transport projects to improve the quality of services and the transport network for people across those regions.
We must also consider what we have to do to make access a reality for people with disabilities. In the House, we have raised the issues of bus driver training and audiovisual systems. They will not go away, particularly when loud voices from consumer and public organisations are saying that it is time that Ministers heard the clarion call to take a lead on access.
Government at all levels must never lose sight of the fact that bus services not simply are the preserve of bus operators but exist for their passengers. Public transport must never be relegated to the status of a second-class service. A well funded and prioritised bus service can be a key driver of economic growth. The Government need to be fully committed to those ideals to make them a reality, rather than sidelining millions of people to what my hon. Friend’s constituent eloquently characterised as curfew living.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Thanks to the Members who made the excellent contributions that we have heard, we will finish by the time at which we hoped to finish.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this debate on the availability of bus services. I will touch on many elements of his speech, and I will answer a couple of his questions directly. I now feel so much more knowledgeable about Corby bus services. He undoubtedly has weeks of press releases and leaflets planned, and I congratulate him on his speech. I also recognise the contribution of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who rightly pointed out that a number of issues affect not only the mainland but his constituency. He made a long speech, and he accepts that some of the issues are not necessarily under this House’s jurisdiction.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and I obviously differ on quality contracts; she will not be surprised about that. My view is that they are a race to the bottom—to poorer services and higher costs. She spoke about services being withdrawn, but any operator has to give 56 days’ notice before a service can be withdrawn. The overall thrust of the Competition Commission’s view, as she will want to recognise, is that the bus market is working well.
I recognise that buses play a vital role in our economy, as any look will show. In England, more than 2.2 billion journeys were made on local buses outside London last year. That number is broadly flat; it is down about 1% on the year before, which is absolutely in keeping with the trends that we have seen since 1997.
Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said about our difference of opinion on quality contracts, does he respect that local decision-making bodies should be able to introduce schemes that they think best serve the needs of local areas? Will the Government continue to offer support on that?
I accept the proposition that locals know what is best for their area, if they wish to go down that line. The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that Ministers would probably express the view that that would be ill-advised. I will continue to express that view, but it is for local areas to make that decision.
If we look at ridership numbers since 1997, and indeed at the broad sweep since the second world war, we see declining ridership on buses, but more than 60% of all trips on public transport are still made on local buses. Some 49% of bus trips outside London are made by people who do not have access to a car. Buses are, of course, essential for many people to get to work, education, doctors and hospitals. The bus is a lifeline for many people, particularly in rural areas. Without the bus, those people would be unable to access essential services, go shopping or socialise.
Yet if one listens to the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), one hears an attempt to portray a network that has fallen apart. Inconveniently, as I have just pointed out, some of the facts do not bear that out. As he will have wanted to acknowledge, the falls in ridership numbers were severe under a regulated regime. Between 1997 and today, the annual fall in ridership, as a percentage, has been almost the same every year. The idea that there has been a complete collapse in bus ridership since 2010 is simply false.
Combined with that is the fact that customer satisfaction with bus journeys is high. In all national surveys, 88% of passengers say that they are satisfied with the service. It is important to recognise, in looking at that number, that under-21s make up about a third of bus passengers, and use among the older generation has increased over the past few years, as the hon. Gentleman would want to acknowledge.
I accept that bus satisfaction is high, but that prompts the question of whether people are satisfied because they are able to get a bus in the first place. The point that my hon. Friends and I have made is on the disproportionate effect of the coalition’s cuts on key vulnerable groups. The Minister will not find statistics that gainsay that point.
The Minister certainly will. I am happy to read out the ridership numbers, but there is nothing in those numbers that suggests there has been an increasing rate of decline in bus use since 2010. That is simply true. I am happy to check my facts in the Library. I have the numbers before me, and I can read them out if the hon. Gentleman wants them. The fact of the matter is that the numbers do not support his argument.
It is true, of course, that bus usage and access to buses are important for a healthy, growing economy. The recent survey by the university of Leeds reinforces that point. Bus commuters generate some £64 billion in economic output, and one in five journeys is a journey to work. Shopping and leisure trips generate annual value of some £27 billion.
The Government, far from what is suggested in some portrayals, remain committed to improving bus services, and expenditure on buses reflects that: 42% of all bus operator income comes from public funds. This year, the Government will spend more than £1 billion on concessionary travel entitlement and more than £340 million in direct subsidy to bus operators in England. More than £300 million has been allocated to funding major bus projects in the last year; that is on top of the provision through the better bus areas fund to deliver improvements in 24 local authorities, which cost more than £70 million, and the £20 million to support community transport. Many bus improvement schemes have also been funded as part of the £600 million local sustainable transport fund.
A total of £95 million has also been provided for four rounds of the green bus fund to improve environmental performance. We are also jointly funding a three-year project with Norfolk county council to determine a delivery model for smart ticketing across England, recognising that smarter ticketing will continue to drive easier access. In the 2013 spending review, we protected bus spending until the end of 2015-16, despite the current economic circumstances. All that demonstrates a commitment that was not recognised in some of the contributions.
The Government recognise that improvements can and must be made. In 2012, our document “Green Light for Better Buses” set out our plans for buses. The proposals included reforming bus subsidy, improving competition and incentivising partnership working. The hon. Member for Corby gave a clear example of what partnership working can deliver in his support for Stagecoach, some of the services that it is delivering, and the way that it has improved a number of them. Improving partnership working is increasingly important.
There is no doubt that these are challenging economic times. Government and local authorities have had to make difficult decisions about some spending priorities, but we want to ensure that the bus market is still attractive to all operators—large and small, urban and rural—by ensuring that funding is allocated in the fairest way, giving the best value for taxpayers and ensuring the best service.
For the record, the services that I mentioned have not improved; they have been reduced significantly. My praise for Stagecoach relates to it having worked with me to keep as many buses on the road as possible. If the Minister’s argument rests on saying that rider numbers are not declining any more steeply than in previous years, it is a pretty disappointing argument. The Minister for Transport ought to set out a vision of how to improve public transport. People still need to get to work, of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) illustrated; they now just have to wait for an hour, or two hours, and struggle to access bus services that should be much more reliable and available.
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, I remarked a moment ago that we have set out a vision for how to improve bus services throughout this country and a view on how we can ensure better services in various areas. I will make some remarks about rural buses in a moment. However, neither he nor I can ignore the trend of declining ridership, whereas for the deregulated rail service, ridership has doubled since privatisation. The idea that we can simply ignore the numbers is not true.
The bus service operators grant has been paid directly to bus operators. To be fair, it has been paid for many years in a blunt and relatively untargeted way based on fuel consumption. Local authorities have told us that they can make the bus subsidy deliver better value for money by working in partnership with bus operators to grow the bus market. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the characteristics of local bus markets differ, so different solutions will undoubtedly be appropriate in different local areas. The Government therefore believe that it is for local authorities to decide which route to pursue. This year, £43 million in BSOG funding will be paid directly to local authorities rather than bus operators; that will relate to the services that councils fund. That will give communities more control over how the money is spent. The funding is now ring-fenced until the end of 2016-17 to provide a period of stability.
The hon. Member for Corby asked several questions, one of which involved concerns about the quality of Centrebus. He will know that all vehicles must meet the relevant standards for roadworthiness enforced by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. If he has any concerns about that, I will be delighted to help him ensure that the DVSA undertakes that operation. He also discussed the poor reliability of service. Again, that is entirely a matter for the traffic commissioner; I encourage him and his constituents to raise any concerns with the traffic commissioner, who has powers to take regulatory action against operators that are failing to deliver the service that they are contracted to deliver.
The Government are also committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to about 11 million people, allowing free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. The concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables access to facilities in local areas, helps them keep in touch with family and friends and brings benefits to the wider economy. The issue of young people’s travel and fare levels is complex. There is no statutory obligation to provide discounted-price travel to young people. Many commercial and publicly funded reductions are available.
Bus services in rural areas do not depend only on public funding. Commercial operators will provide services in areas where there are enough passengers, and overall commercial mileage in very rural areas of Britain has increased rather than decreased over the past year. However, the Government accept that where commercial services are not feasible, local authorities must and do play a vital role in supporting rural bus services. Almost 30% of bus mileage is in predominately rural authorities, and it is therefore for local authorities to decide what is the best support to put in place in response to local views.
It is vital that local authorities have the opportunity to maximise the funding that they provide. To help with that, last year my Department met its commitment to publish revised guidance to local authorities on best practice when procuring local bus services and other types of road passenger transport. Although I recognise that a lot of innovative and hard work is done by councils all over the country, there is certainly scope to do more. The best practice document sets out some really good practice and highlights some of what local authorities can achieve.
Providing bus transport solutions in rural areas can be challenging. Undoubtedly, the traditional fixed-route service operating to a timetable cannot be and has not always been appropriate. The combination of lower passenger numbers and longer journeys can also put pressure on funding. That is why many local authorities, learning from best practice, are considering other solutions, whether they involve supporting community buses provided by voluntary services, dial-a-ride or other types of demand-responsive transport such as taxis and minicabs. My Department is undertaking further work to examine the barriers to procurement of better types of service, and we are committed to ensuring that that knowledge is spread through the industry.
In conclusion, this Government believe in buses. Since 2012, we have set out a clear vision for a better bus service with more of what passengers want: punctual, interconnected services, greener and more fully wheelchair-accessible buses, and widely available smart ticketing. That will encourage more passengers to use the network, cut carbon and encourage economic growth.