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Concessionary Fares: Blackpool North and Cleveleys

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2016

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered concessionary fares in Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am disappointed to see so many colleagues leaving and not staying for my debate. I simply cannot understand it, but I thank the Minister for his time.

Blackpool tramway needs no introduction from me. I am sure many of the hon. Members who are leaving have also left Blackpool after a party conference. The tramway has been there for well over 100 years, connecting Fleetwood in the north to Squires Gate in the south and linking the pleasure beach, the tower, Cleveleys, Fleetwood and many of our tourist attractions, which 10 million people visit every year. The tramway is a major reason for visiting Blackpool.

It is worth pointing out to the Minister that the tram is not just about tourism. It is particularly beneficial for my constituents who live near the Fylde coast. It is a major means for people to get to and from work in central Blackpool, where parking may be limited and more expensive than the cost of using the tram. It is particularly important for many of my elderly constituents who use it to go into the town centre and to go shopping. They may have chosen to live in this part of the world because of access to the tramway.

The usefulness and value of the tramway is coming under threat for two reasons that I want to cover today, both of which relate to the concessionary fare schemes. We were grateful that the previous Labour Government, before 2010, agreed to invest in upgrading the tramway to meet modern standards. As much as we all loved and cherished the antique, heritage trams—many of them still trundle up and down to this day at weekends and during the holiday season—they were fast becoming not fit for purpose. There were serious issues with meeting modern accessibility standards, and it was right to invest in and improve them to bring them up to date.

In 2012, it was a great day for the Fylde coast when the new tramway was launched and I travelled on the first new tram. Blackpool Council took a brave and visionary decision to ensure that, notwithstanding national legislation on concessionary fares, anyone coming to Blackpool in possession of a concessionary card could use it on the trams and travel anywhere on the network free of charge. That certainly helped ridership levels as the tramway came back into use. The ridership levels built up again, but things are now changing.

There has been an alteration in local government financing—we have to recognise that. Blackpool Council has decided that it can no longer afford to make that generous offer to all UK residents. That has had a major impact in my constituency, where residents of Cleveleys—which is in Wyre Borough Council’s area and immediately adjacent to the tracks, surrounded by houses on both sides—must now pay full fare to travel on the tramway as it passes through Wyre, even though they may have a concessionary card. That has had a direct impact on the transport choices they have to make about where they go, what they do and how they live. That is a concern.

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

I entirely understand the perfectly rational argument that a transport authority should fund concessionary fares only for those who live within their area. I do not expect Blackpool Council to fund a national tram concession for everyone. It would be great if it did, but I entirely understand that it must work within its own budgetary limits, and its residents would criticise it if it chose to be more generous. However, it is worth pointing out that under the previous scheme Lancashire County Council, which is the transport authority for the northern part of my constituency, was paying £36,000 a year towards some of the concessionary travel for Lancashire residents on the tramway.

Removing that money was the trigger for the overall deconstruction of what had been a perfectly simple and straightforward scheme that everyone understood. If someone had a concessionary fare card—it is called a NoWcard in our part of the world—they could go anywhere on the tram. Everyone understood it and no one was caught out, but its removal was pernicious to my constituents and illogical. For example, a resident of Blackpool can travel on the tram free of charge between Cleveleys and Fleetwood, without entering Blackpool territory and remaining wholly within Lancashire County Council territory. They travel free of charge. However, a resident of Cleveleys wanting to go into Blackpool to spend money in the local Blackpool economy would have to pay full fare on the tram. That is simply illogical, and angers and frustrates many of my local residents. We have to think about what we can do to ameliorate the situation.

It is worth explaining the local geography. People may think that because I represent Blackpool North and Cleveleys, they are two separate and distinct geographic areas with a green belt separating the two communities. Far from it. It is one solid, cohesive urban block. I have read somewhere that it is the most densely populated constituency outside central London. There is very little green space, apart from one or two golf courses and one farm. The boundary between Blackpool and Wyre is but a line on a map and divides bedrooms, living rooms, greenhouses and back gardens. It goes through people’s houses, creating the ultimate postcode lottery. On many roads, residents on one side still have full and unfettered access to the whole tram network, while those on the other side have been hit by the changes. There is a fundamental illogicality.

An even greater concern is the impact on disabled passengers. A major reason for upgrading the trams at around the turn of the decade was to improve disabled access. Every station platform was raised, the new trams had level access and new flexi-trams were commissioned to ensure that wheelchair users had no problem getting on them. Blackpool has a valued reputation among disabled tourists for being somewhere they can get around easily because of the tram network.

A consequence of Lancashire Council’s decision to remove what limited concessionary fares it provided is that disabled passengers cannot now access the tram other than by paying full fare. Moreover, there is no guarantee that any parallel bus service will be accessible. Although Blackpool Transport is updating its fleet as fast as it can, no one could stand at the bus stop and be confident that the next bus would be able to accommodate a wheelchair. Will the Minister look at how the network is constructed and funded, and whether that complies with disability access rules?

The solution is relatively simple: Blackpool Council should fund concessionary travel for Blackpool residents and Lancashire Council should fund concessionary travel for Wyre residents. The estimated cost would be around £170,000. I have been unable to obtain a precise figure, much as I would like to, but that is what I have been told is a rough, ballpark figure. In the context of Lancashire’s multimillion pound budget, that is not a significant amount, although it is to many of us.

That is a simple solution. It should not be difficult to agree to it—it is certainly not difficult to understand—yet I can think of no issue that has been more controversial or provoked more partisan arguments in recent years than how we deal with it in our constituency. It was a major defining issue at the last election. Today I am trying to remove the partisanship from the debate—I am not referring to the political control of the individual councils involved.

Numerous arguments are deployed against what I think is the correct solution. Many rightly point out, for example, that there is a parallel bus route to the tram network—the No. 1 bus, which goes, just like the tram, all the way from Fleetwood down to Squires Gate. Of course, there is an element of common sense in that. If someone has to pay full fare on the tram but can use their concessionary card on the bus, why do they not take the bus? However, there is a reason why the bus and tram coexist in the first place: the level of demand. There has been no increase in bus provision on the route. As I discussed earlier, there has been no change in the buses serving the No. 1 route.

More important is the seasonal demand on the route. Numerous hotels line the promenade, as anyone who has been to Blackpool will have seen for themselves. When the No. 1 bus stops at the 480-bed Norbreck Castle hotel, half way between Cleveleys and Blackpool, a large number of the guests want to get on. Indeed, the queue can be dozens long, so that when the bus gets nearer to Blackpool there is no room on it, even if it is accessible to wheelchairs. Further down into the town centre there are more hotels, on what is known as the cliff stretch of the promenade. Once again, bus queues develop rapidly there, both for buses going north into Cleveleys and those going south into Blackpool. People can have only quite limited confidence in their likelihood of getting a bus service at peak hours. The expansion of the bus service would naturally require greater investment by both transport authorities. It is surely far better to restore the concessionary travel scheme on to the trams, where there is currently excess capacity. That would make far more sense.

Another argument is often put, which may sound plausible on first hearing. Why, it is asked, if I want concessionary travel fares for Wyre residents, does not Wyre Council, the borough council, pay for them? Superficially that sounds eminently plausible, but of course Wyre is not the transport authority. It is a small borough council, one of about 16, I think, in Lancashire. I have been told that providing funding of £172,000 for the concessionary fares scheme would increase Wyre’s council tax by roughly 3%—a considerable increase for every council taxpayer in the borough. Because Wyre is not the transport authority, I believe it does not have an obligation to meet that funding request.

There are many things that Lancashire is trying to offload on to the boroughs at the moment. For example, it is seeking to stop the ferry from Fleetwood to Knott End—it expects someone else to pay for it. It is keen to get Wyre to part-fund lollipop ladies. Wyre already part-funds police community support officers. It would set a dangerous precedent for Wyre to keep agreeing to fund everything that the council decided it no longer wanted to fund, despite having an obligation to do so. Therefore, I am not convinced by that argument. Wyre council tax payers pay the bulk of their council tax to Lancashire County Council, the transport authority, which has an obligation to provide public transport and should meet that.

The whole argument is at risk of being overshadowed, because Lancashire is going beyond concessionary fare restrictions. It argues that it will stop paying for the maintenance of the tramway altogether. That would make this debate almost pointless. There will be no trams to Cleveleys or Fleetwood. They will turn around at the Little Bispham turning loop and not enter Wyre or Lancashire territory at all. That would be devastating for towns such as Cleveleys and Fleetwood. Fleetwood in particular went through hell during the tram upgrade. The central road of Fleetwood, Lord Street, was basically shut down during the work, with a major impact on local businesses. To have gone through all that and had the tramway open for a couple of years, it would make no sense now to have the tramway cease operating.

I continue to be deeply concerned about what is going on with our tramways on the Fylde coast. I have held rallies in Cleveleys, launched petitions and made protests. I have had extensive talks with the Department, and it would make my day if I could force the Government’s hand in some way and encourage them to extend the national regulations to include trams. I make no apologies for asking once again for the Minister to do just that. I live in hope; I always do. Will the Government at least look again at my ten-minute rule Bill from a number of years ago, on extending the concessionary fare scheme to community transport, which can take up some of the slack created within the tram network—particularly for those disabled passengers who cannot always gain access to bus travel?

I would also welcome the Minister’s views on how the Government can help Lancashire to meet its public transport obligations. What assessment has he made of the human rights implications of Lancashire’s various decisions, particularly on disabled access? Would he be prepared to encourage Lancashire County Council to discuss further how devolution might allow it to find a way out of the problem it has created for itself? We have Transport for Lancashire—no one is quite sure what it does, least of all Transport for Lancashire itself, I fear. We have the new Transport for the North, which I heartily welcome. The direction of devolution is towards giving greater control to local areas to craft their own solutions on public transport. What help can the Department give to the various bodies in Lancashire, as they journey at varying rates towards a combined authority, to enable them to find a solution with a single common travel area of Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn? An arbitrary divide and a postcode lottery make no sense, as I have said.

What advice can the Minister offer the many thousands of my constituents in Cleveleys who have been left marooned because they cannot use trams without paying full fare and may not be able to afford it? Does he agree that it is perverse for the county council to spend £150,000—almost the amount of one year’s worth of concessionary fare travel—on looking at whether the tramway should be extended to Lytham St Annes, at the same time as it is trying to restrict concessionary fare travel? I have no objection to the tramway going to St Annes—it is a lovely destination—but what does that say about the priorities of the county council at the moment?

What assessment has the Minister made of the implications of the decisions and proposals for the Government’s generous agreement to help to fund the £16 million upgrade to extend the tramway in Blackpool town centre up to Blackpool North station? There will inevitably be fewer people riding on the trams if everything I have outlined comes to pass. Does that mean that we have to re-examine the business case for the proposal and does it call it into question? I would be highly concerned if that were so, and I would welcome some reassurance from the Minister.

In the interest of time, so that the Minister has a chance to reply, as I know he is keen to do, I will just stress once more that, although in the bulk of constituencies tramways might seem to be a peripheral issue, they are literally at the heart of my constituency. They are at the heart of our daily life. I would find it hard to conceive of the Fylde coast without them. At a time when the county council is sitting on reserves of £400 million, for which it cannot identify a specific use, is it really prudent financial management for it to say it cannot afford £172,000 just to keep the concessionary fares going each year? That is artificially dividing my community, and has a detrimental economic impact on the towns of Cleveleys and Fleetwood. It is causing continued anger in my constituency. Can I look to the Minister for some positive words and some hope for the future that the accurate direction he is going in on transport devolution will lead to the conundrum being solved as soon as possible?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing the debate. He made his case with his customary passion, and I was particularly struck by how important the issue is for both visitors and residents. I have some knowledge of the area, having visited his constituency on a number of occasions; in a former life I took company conferences to the Norbreck Castle hotel—and very successful and enjoyable they have always been.

My hon. Friend raised several issues, and I will begin my response by talking about concessionary travel. The Government know how important affordable, accessible transport is. It is the bread and butter of the way communities function and move around. That is especially true for older and disabled passengers—a point that he made clearly and powerfully. That is, of course, why the Government have committed to protecting the national bus travel concession in England, and why they spend some £950 million a year on doing so.[Official Report, 21 January 2016, Vol. 604, c. 5-6MC.] The concession provides much-needed help for some of the most vulnerable people in our society by giving them greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables some 10 million older people and disabled people to access facilities in their local area. It helps them to keep in touch with family and friends, and it brings wider benefits to the economy.

The national concession sets a minimum standard available to any eligible person anywhere in England. That does not come cheap, which is why, given the current economic situation, we do not have plans to extend the remit of the basic concession any further. My hon. Friend asked whether we could extend it to tramways. I will do some costing, but we do not have tramways just in his constituency; they are a growing feature of urban transport in our country. They are successful, and they are being extended in Nottingham, Manchester and other areas. They are popular and well used, so extending the concessionary fare scheme into our tramways nationally would be an extremely expensive undertaking.

Local authorities have the power to enhance the national offer with discretionary concessions according to local need and funding priorities; I will come back to funding priorities at the end. That may include extending the times of the concession to include peak-time travel, offering a companion pass for people who need assistance to travel, or offering concessions on different modes of transport, such as trams. As we have heard, it can also include concessionary arrangements between neighbouring local authorities, such as the arrangement between Blackpool Borough Council and Lancashire County Council to accept NoWcards from other Lancashire residents on the Blackpool tramway. I am aware of the changes to the administration of that enhancement. Although I fully understand my hon. Friend’s disappointment and that of his constituents, the provision of such discretionary concessions is a matter on which local authorities must work together to try to solve such problems, based on those authorities’ assessment of local need and funding priorities.

Trams and light rail are a convenient, regular and reliable way for people to get to work or school, or to travel around their area with ease. Well planned systems in the right location can enhance the reputation and ambience of an area. However, I do not think it is for the Government to dictate what extensions should be made to particular schemes, because such decisions should be taken locally to reflect the individual needs and circumstances of an area. That is entirely in the grain of Government thinking about devolution, about people taking responsibility and ownership of their areas and about ensuring that decisions are made as close as possible to where a service is delivered. As a consequence, such services will be better tailored to local need and, therefore, better services.

On the joint funding arrangements between Blackpool Borough Council and Lancashire County Council for tramway maintenance, I understand that discussions may already be taking place, and I do not wish to pre-empt any outcome. It is, however, my sincere hope that a speedy and satisfactory resolution can be reached, with the best interests of the community at heart.

It is worth taking a moment to consider funding for rural services, because we have had many requests for further support for transport in rural areas. Calls have been made for Government to provide a dedicated fund to maintain and improve bus services in rural areas. I assure the House that we fully recognise the extra pressure placed on local authorities to provide services in more isolated areas. If communities are disconnected from transport, they may wither and die, so transport is fundamental to community health. That is why we have introduced the rural services delivery grant, which is a non-ring-fenced grant paid to the most rural councils. Last year, the Government added £2 million of additional funding to the £9.5 million of rural services delivery grant already provided, and I am sure we all welcome the recent announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that he intends to increase the support for the most sparsely populated rural areas by quadrupling the rural services delivery grant from £15.5 million to £65 million in 2019-20.

Transport in rural areas is not just about the levels of public funding; it is about how and where that funding is used. Where commercial operations are not feasible, local authorities have a vital role in supporting rural bus services. Indeed, around one fifth of bus mileage in predominantly rural areas is operated under contract to the local authority. We believe that local authorities are best placed to decide what support to provide in response to local need. That is why we devolved £40 million of the £250 million paid in the bus service operators grant subsidy to councils outside London last year to support bus services in England, so that they can decide for themselves how it is spent. It is vital that those local authorities maximise the return on every penny of the funding that they provide.

Does the Minister recognise that many urban bus services in the centre of Blackpool originate in rural areas? The proposals for Lancashire County Council to reduce rural bus subsidies will also reduce the frequency of bus services in central Blackpool. It is not just about rural or urban, because many rural bus services also support urban areas.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I entirely agree with it. The distinctions are very blurred, and both things clearly have a knock-on effect on each other.

I want to highlight an initiative called Total Transport. At present, some £2 billion of public funding for transport services every year is provided by a number of different agencies. For example, I have mentioned the bus service operators grant of £250 million. DCLG provides support for local bus services of £317 million, and home-to-school transport funding of £1 billion. Non-emergency patient transport worth £150 million is provided by the NHS to local clinical commissioning groups. All that funding is provided from different sources. That is why last year we launched the £7.6 million Total Transport pilot scheme across England to explore how different authorities working together can potentially deliver a much better transport solution. It is about working collectively and pooling services where there is common interest. We seek to avoid the duplication of commissioned services, to allow networks to be designed to complement each other, to reduce administrative costs and to focus on how a more comprehensive offer can be delivered by working together.

My hon. Friend mentioned community transport, which is fundamental in many parts of our country, both urban and rural. I hope that he is aware of our strong support for it. We have supported it with a recent community minibus fund of £25 million, which will help elderly residents by providing, I think, 310 new minibuses to groups up and down our country. So far, £1.3 million of grant has been paid to organisations to buy their vehicles, and the procurement of the remaining vehicles is well under way. That will make a difference to the whole sector.

On the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, I will certainly write to the councils concerned, because the point is partnership solutions to deliver a result for residents. I will highlight to the councils the strength of feeling that has been shown in the debate and urge them to work together. The solution has to lie in councils working in a non-partisan way. In my letter to Lancashire County Council, I will ask it to consider the impact of changes on disabled people, in particular. That is an area of personal interest to my hon. Friend and of significant personal interest to me. I do not want disability access to our public transport to be compromised in any area. I want it to be improved, not the opposite.

I hope that the message that goes from here to the councils is that we want to see a solution that will continue to offer tramway access and support Blackpool’s trams. They are an iconic part of Blackpool, and they are one of the reasons why visitors go to Blackpool, particularly at certain times of the year. That is something I have experienced, as a visitor to Blackpool. They must be understood to be a driver of the local economy, so there is an economic and a social reason why a swift resolution would be helpful. That is the message that I will send to the councils, and when I hear back from them, I will report back to my hon. Friend. They will, I am sure, be acutely aware of the strong case he has made and continues to make.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.