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Bus Services: Solihull

Volume 620: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered bus services in Solihull.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan.

Reliable and accessible public transport is vital for many of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Older and less mobile residents in particular often depend on buses to get out and about, and everybody benefits when shops and social clubs are within easy reach of as many residents as possible. That is why it is so important that bus operators ensure that they take proper account of the needs of those who need their services most, and not just of profit or general convenience, when designing their routes and timetables.

Those of us who are fit and well or who usually drive to work or the shops sometimes do not realise what a lifeline public transport is for older and less mobile residents. Even an apparently minor change in a route or in the location of a stop can cause real difficulties for the people who need a service the most, but too often the rest of us do not realise that. Unfortunately, in my experience, neither do some of the bus operators.

I am campaigning for residents who have been let down by bus operators on two routes in my constituency. The number 37 bus runs from Solihull station into Birmingham. Last summer, National Express rerouted it away from Olton station in the north of my constituency, in response to concerns about congestion. Although the new stop at Warwick Road is not terribly far away on a map, it has made the connecting bus and rail journey disproportionately more difficult for those who are least able to find other ways of getting into Birmingham. I have written regularly on the subject, both in the local press and directly to National Express. I have met Peter Coates, its chief executive for the west midlands, and have attended public meetings to hear residents’ concerns at first hand. I can tell the Minister that those public meetings were full to the rafters, such are people’s concerns.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, because this is a huge issue. He mentioned public meetings. Several routes have been pulled in our constituency; our meetings about them have been the most widely attended of all the public meetings I have held.

The routes are being pulled because they are not viable. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at some kind of cross-borough co-operation, to give assistance to people from rural areas who are looking to go shopping in our towns and cities or trying to get to work?

I am very aware of the difficulties that my hon. Friend describes. They mirror the experiences that we have had in Solihull, including a lack of transparency from some operators and a lack of engagement from others. I absolutely agree that a cross-borough approach between north Warwickshire and Solihull, where our boroughs meet, is important. I know that there are west midlands programmes, but our reaction to them is often a little borough-specific rather than cross-borough.

My office has organised a petition, which I will present to the House shortly and which will indicate the strength of feeling in my constituency about the reroutings. As a result of our efforts, some temporary bus stops have been installed closer to the station, but while that eases the inconvenience for people who can easily walk the rest of the way, it does not solve the problem for elderly and disabled people.

The route shift started as a trial, apparently because congestion around the station was causing regular delays, but I have since been told that it will be staying in place. Obviously nobody likes it when a bus is delayed, but surely operators should try to find more realistic timetables for accessible routes, rather than making their services more difficult to use for those who need them most. I have had representations about that from many people in my constituency who have disabilities.

Another service in my constituency, the S11, has also been redesigned in the name of efficiency without proper care having been taken to protect the interests of its users. The S11 and a couple of connecting services have been shortened to save money and make them more reliable, but they now bypass several residential areas: Hampton Lane, School Lane and Grove Road, which now have no direct connection to the wider public transport network. Once again, that is not the end of the world for someone who can easily walk to the new stops, but it creates much more serious problems for less mobile residents. I myself have had a difficult experience of late; an unfortunate accident meant that I was unable to cover any real distance by walking. It gave me a real insight into the difficulties that come from just trying to cover short distances. Unfortunately, Transport for West Midlands has told me that it cannot act, as the route is privately run.

The S11 situation highlights how much privately run services depend on a good and responsible operator. Unlike National Express, the company running the S11 route, Diamond, has been very difficult to engage with. That is a key point. At least National Express has been willing to talk to and engage with a parliamentarian—myself—and with local councillors and the wider community. However, I have genuine concerns about Diamond. I have been lucky to get a single response out of the company, despite having written to it about residents’ concerns at least 10 times. I am also sorry to say that when Diamond ran a consultation—a fact-find, if you like—on this issue, it chose to do so on a Saturday morning, a time when the elderly residents to whom the bus service is so important use it much less than they do during the week.

All of that suggests that Diamond is more interested in ticking the boxes than in engaging seriously with users’ concerns. I will clearly name Diamond and say that at this moment in time it is effectively failing the people of Solihull, in the provision of services and—more crucially—in these key consultations and fact-finds.

My team and I are still taking action. I have written about this issue several times in the local press and we are distributing hundreds of leaflets about petitions, to make sure that people have an opportunity to make their views known. If Diamond will not do this consultation, I will try to do it for Diamond, and I will present the results to Diamond at every given opportunity. When the operator refuses to engage and is not accountable to any public authority for its decisions, it is really an uphill battle for local communities to put across their views and concerns.

That such small changes to just two routes could have these effects highlights how important local bus services are to some of the less mobile, and often less visible, members of our community. I have no reason to doubt that every bus route in my constituency goes through neighbourhoods where people depend on it to provide a vital link to the rest of the town. When neighbourhoods lose their link to the wider community, it is not just those neighbourhoods that lose out; local businesses lose customers or potential employees, while sports teams, social clubs and charities have fewer members and volunteers.

That is another important point. In Solihull, we rely on a sea of volunteering. I was at a dinner the other night where I was told that up to 800 charities are based in Solihull. I run a scheme—a “points of light” scheme—to recognise those groups. If someone is volunteering, by definition they are doing so for free, but they need to get to their place of volunteering, and it is much more difficult for them to do so if the buses and the wider transport links are not in place.

A better connected community is better for everybody in it, and we all have a stake in making sure that our town is as accessible as possible. That is why it is so important that bus services are run well, and that those who run them are accountable to the people who use them.

I am not one to get misty-eyed about the prospect of the Government running services directly, or one to hark back in time. A good operator can often move more quickly than other bodies to put things right when there is a problem. I mentioned National Express earlier, showing the company in a poor light, but one area where it has engaged with people is in redesigning the timetable of the No. 31 bus after I wrote to say how schoolchildren were being left to wait at the school gates for 45 minutes for a bus home, which I believe was also a very serious safety issue. National Express took that on board and actually made the correct changes to the timetable.

We must always make sure that operators live up to high standards, are responsible, and are responsive to local concerns when they make decisions about routes and timetables. The networks that they run bind our communities together, and their profits— and, yes, the convenience of sprightlier bus users—cannot be their only considerations. Basically, we need to work from a base of considering those who are least mobile and who need bus services the most in order to get around.

Thank you very much, Ms Ryan, for calling me to speak. I think that this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing this debate about bus services in Solihull. I can assure him that I am very keen to support his aim of improving those services.

My hon. Friend eloquently described just how important buses are to communities. They are indeed a “lifeline” and without them it would be impossible for many people to get to work, to access public services, including health or education services, or simply to go shopping or socialising. I was particularly struck by his points about the amount of volunteering that takes place within Solihull, that volunteers need transport to do their volunteering and that our communities all benefit from the work of volunteers.

It is important to note that more than half of those people who rely on bus services outside London do not have access to a car. Buses play a vital role in our economy; with 4.4 billion passenger journeys last year, buses are by far the most popular form of public transport. They are way ahead of rail in terms of passenger journeys.

Customer satisfaction with bus journeys is very high, with 86% of passengers satisfied with their service. That picture is consistent across the country and it has been so for many years. Under-21s make up about a third of bus passengers and bus use among older people is increasing as a result of the national concessionary fares scheme. So buses are critical across the country, as my hon. Friend articulated when speaking about Solihull.

It is because of their importance that we are committed to improving bus services, and expenditure on buses reflects that. I will make a couple of comments about support for buses as a whole and then I will make some suggestions, specifically to respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend. I just want to put the comments that have been made into some perspective.

This year, the Government will spend more than £1 billion on the concessionary travel entitlement, and my Department provides more than £240 million in direct subsidy to bus operators and local authorities in England, to help them to deliver local services. Bus services in England outside London are deregulated and it is indeed for commercial operators to determine how, where and when their services operate. About 80% of the bus services in our country operate in this way. Local authorities have powers to subsidise services that are not commercially viable but which they consider socially necessary. Again, however, that is a local decision and it is up to local authorities to decide which services they will fund.

Local bus services must also be registered with the traffic commissioner who has responsibility for such services. The commissioner can take enforcement action against an operator if its service does not run reliably.

The Minister is obviously making some very good points, but much of this process relies on a two-way engagement. Unfortunately, I have found that often there is only a one-way engagement; the operator says what will happen and it happens.

I agree that communication must be two-way; it if is not two-way, then it really is not communication. So my hon. Friend is correct about that and I will say a little more about engagement in a moment.

A traffic commissioner can take enforcement action if an operator does not operate its service reliably. Nevertheless, whoever provides bus services, it is important that operators and local authorities ensure that the interests of passengers, and consequently the interests of the wider community, are taken into account when any changes to bus services are being considered.

I also agree with my hon. Friend that good customer service includes proper consultation. He mentioned that a consultation event took place on a Saturday morning. That would have suited some people, who might be at work during the week, but it will not have suited everybody. A company must ensure that it engages everybody—all those who will be affected by any changes—in a proper consultation, and then take any concerns into account.

Passenger Focus has produced best practice guidance on how a company should consult when it makes changes to local bus services. It includes four key principles: collate, which basically means that the company should formulate its proposals; consult, which means the company must consider when to consult, what to consult on, who to ask and how to carry the consultation out, making sure that it captures all the local information; consideration, which means the company must go through and assess all the responses properly; and communicate, which means the company must communicate its decision to all those who are affected. So collate, consult, consider and communicate—happily alliterative, which I am sure is no coincidence. The basic principles are clear and the bus companies should be operating them, up and down our country. I urge all bus companies and anyone making or considering making a change to bus services to follow that excellent guidance and adopt those principles.

I take on board the Minister’s point, but those are best practice principles and in many cases that is not what is happening. Does he accept that? For example, the 116 route in Kingsbury was pulled with the minimum amount of notice, which left my constituents unable to get to work because there was no alternative service.

I indeed accept my hon. Friend’s good point. He has raised this issue as a vigorous champion for his area on several occasions. When we do not see that best practice happening we are right to hold bus companies to account, in representation of our communities. That is our job here. We must stand up for people who need bus services and who, although they do not necessarily have the sharpest elbows, must have their voices listened to.

My Department, and through it the Government as a whole, is taking action to support transport within communities in many other areas, and I would like to mention a couple of them that will, I think, be of interest. At present, each year about £2 billion of public funding for transport services is provided by a number of agencies. For example, we have the £250 million a year that is spent on the bus service operators grant, which the Department for Transport provides to bus operators, local authorities and community transport organisations on the basis of the amount of fuel consumed—a pence per litre rebate. The Department for Communities and Local Government provides £317 million a year to local authorities to support socially necessary bus services. The £1 billion a year spent on home-to-school transport is provided to local authorities by DCLG. The £150 million a year spent on non-emergency patient transport is provided by the NHS to individual local clinical commissioning groups.

That significant amount of funding comes from different sources but it needs to be spent in a joined-up way. Historically, it has not been spent in that way and that provides us with an opportunity. We have, therefore, launched a concept called “total transport” and provided a budget of £7.6 million to fund pilot schemes across England to explore how our public services can work together to provide a better transport service—how councils, the NHS and other agencies can jointly commission transport services with greater efficiency. The idea involves: avoiding the duplication of commissioned services; allowing networks to be designed so that they complement each other; reducing administrative costs, potentially by centralising commissioning; enabling the skills of professional staff, such as those who are scheduling the networks, to be deployed across all the services; and, most importantly of course, achieving overall cost efficiencies, and through that ensuring that services are more viable and that a better footprint of travel and transport is available to our constituents. We have been running 37 pilots on the idea for almost two years. I have met with some of the operators around the country and it is heartening to see the enthusiasm with which they are participating and taking on the opportunities. That is happening across the country and will be of much interest to colleagues.

A further area that always attracts interest from colleagues is the community transport sector. Providing transport solutions also requires the effective use of all options, and this could be relevant to the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Solihull and for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey). It could be a traditional fixed-route bus service, a community bus, a dial-a-ride or another type of demand-responsive transport, such as taxis. The role played by community transport operators is vital in linking individuals and communities to existing transport networks, work, education, shops and services. In recognition of that contribution and important role, the Government launched a £25 million community minibus scheme to help to buy new vehicles for local community transport operators, with a bit of a bias towards more rural areas, where transport can be thinly stretched. The funding will help, among others, elderly residents and people with learning and physical disabilities.

The point about community transport is very important but it is not about just rural areas; it is also about areas of likely demographic demand. For example, in Solihull’s Silhill ward, from which the town gets its name, 40% of residents are aged 65 and over. When I first started campaigning to be elected as an MP, we had a real battle on our hands to keep the dial-a-ride services. It is fantastic to think of rurality, but demography should also play a major part in the process.

This is another occasion on which my hon. Friend and I are in full agreement, and I have just learned the origin of the word Solihull. He is clearly correct. I mentioned rural services simply because transport can be a bit more stretched in rural areas, but there is a requirement for transport everywhere—those who need it are all over our country and in every constituency.

I am delighted to say that more than 300 local charities and community groups across England will receive new minibuses in round one of the community minibus scheme—we have had delivery of more than 200 already. We have been able to secure funding for a further round, applications to which closed in December. The Community Transport Association UK is administering the scheme for us. That is an additional £2 million to provide a further set of vehicles for these impressive organisations.

The bus market is a deregulated one, and it has not changed much in its regulatory form for many years. However, the Bus Services Bill has completed its journey through the upper House and will shortly enter our Chamber. The deregulated market for buses has worked very well for much of our country, but we must recognise that in some areas it has not always responded effectively to the changing needs of the population or taken passenger needs properly into account. That has resulted in insufficient service co-ordination and sometimes poor ticket integration and ineffective on-road competition.

I want to build on the success of the bus market and the strong companies that are out there working to deliver buses, but I want to encourage more people to use them. The Bus Services Bill is designed to put more passengers on to buses. When we set about drafting the Bill that was the aim we had in mind—to improve services and increase passenger numbers. The Bill provides tools that will help local authorities to achieve that aim. It is an enabling Bill that will create a suite of powers to allow local authorities and combined authorities to choose what is right for their area. The powers include new and enhanced partnership provisions, which will allow local authorities to work with bus companies to agree their own standards for services in an area. That is the model that is most likely to be adopted.

When I have talked to councils and combined authorities around the country, they have been very tuned in to the Bill and to the opportunities it presents. Nearly all of them have focused strongly on how partnership will be able to improve their services. That is pretty likely, because when we look at the bus market and at which bits of it are growing strongly, it tends to be those areas where we have good effective partnership between the entrepreneurial spirit and determination regarding customer service that we see from so many bus operators, and the effective planning and co-ordination that can come from local authorities.

I recognise that partnerships will not necessarily be the best solution everywhere. In some cases, the market will be working well and nothing will need to change. If it is not broken, it does not need to be fixed, and there is an opportunity for the status quo to continue in the Bill. In some areas, we intend to allow local authorities, particularly combined authorities, to use new powers to franchise bus services in their areas—like the system in London. Franchising will enable authorities to specify the services that passengers want and to deliver an integrated network of services. Private operators will compete for contracts and deliver those services. It is not a suspension of the market, because competition would move from the kerbside to the tender. That will be a feature of the bus market in a couple of areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull detailed how he has communicated with his local bus company, Diamond, but not had the response he desired. That is not acceptable. As he has built a reputation here as a vigorous champion for his area in general and for buses in particular, it is more than fair to say that he should get an adequate response from important local providers. I will write to Diamond’s parent company, to say that we have discussed the issue in the House, that we regret the level of engagement locally and that we ask it to sort it out.

I have been to Birmingham to meet the West Midlands Bus Alliance. I attended the launch of the Swift card, and I have my Swift card here. I have no doubt that local authorities in the area see buses as a key part of public transport provision. They are champions for buses. I have been most encouraged, hearing about their transport plans and how they want to work together. The outlook is positive, I hope—I have been encouraged by their work so far—but I will highlight my hon. Friend’s concerns to them to ensure that they are sighted on the issue, too.

In summary, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that the Government are committed to maintaining and improving bus services in all areas. We are taking an imaginative approach to the co-ordination of public services. We are supporting services through extra Government grants and working to bring forward a regulatory regime that will enable greater planning and greater co-ordination, all of which will put the bus customer at the heart of the marketplace. We want to see bus services thrive, whether in the largest cities or the most rural villages. The point is that buses matter, and we want to see more people using them to ensure we get all the benefits that my hon. Friends have so clearly articulated.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.