[Eighth Report of the Transport Committee, Bus Services Bill, HC 611, and the Government’s response, HC 918.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Buses are England’s most used form of public transport. With over 4.65 billion passenger journeys a year, they account for over 60% of all public transport trips. Buses support our economy, and they connect our communities to the workplace and vital public services, such as healthcare and education. They help to reduce congestion, and cleaner bus technologies also contribute significantly to improving air quality. The Government continue to regard this as a priority, and we are helping to drive it forward through investing in schemes such as the £30 million low emission bus scheme and the £7 million in the clean bus technology fund.
Across England, the bus industry is delivering excellent services for passengers. According to the most recent bus passenger survey by Transport Focus, 86% of passengers were satisfied with their services. Buses today are very different from the buses of 30 years ago: over 90% are accessible; many have free wi-fi, CCTV and USB charging points; and nine out of 10 have smart ticketing equipment. That is all thanks to significant private sector investment in the industry. I am particularly pleased that the five largest operators are continuing to invest in better services and that they will bring contactless payment to every bus outside London during the next five years. We have an industry of large and small firms, with large firms doing a good job and small firms doing a good job.
Will the Secretary of State congratulate our municipal transport company, Blackpool Transport, on not only introducing a new fleet of accessible buses, but making a profit last year of £1.38 million, £1 million of which was returned as a dividend to the council? Does not that make the case for extending rather than stifling municipal bus companies?
There is no doubt that in a small number of places, municipal bus companies have survived and that, in a place such as Blackpool, they play an important role in the local transport system. However, the Government do not believe that extending the provision of bus services to council after council is the right approach. It will stifle the private sector investment that has made such a significant difference. However, I pay tribute to Blackpool, which has also done excellent work on the tram system. Those of us who look back to the days of taking “The Ship” and the other historic trams up and down the seafront are slightly disappointed that that can now happen only at illumination time.
The Secretary of State has talked about the bus service 30 years ago. Of course, the biggest difference is that buses are now genuinely accessible. Does he agree that it is welcome to see provision for audio-visual information, which my constituents have regularly raised with me?
My hon. Friend is right. It is of paramount importance that we look after people with disabilities on our buses. An important part of that is ensuring that the right information is available and that we have the most accessible possible bus fleet. I am particularly pleased about the number of our newest buses that are manufactured in this country by some excellent firms.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm my understanding that the Bill is an enabling measure, and that there will be no compulsion on local authorities to change bus services when the arrangements between the council and the bus operators mean that a good service is already provided?
As I go on to talk about the Government’s approach to the Bill, I absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that it is not about forcing anybody down a route to change. No local areas should countenance asking or pushing for change unless they have a clear plan for delivering improvements for passengers. The Bill is not and should not be simply about moving deckchairs around.
I am listening carefully to the Secretary of State. Bus passengers in many parts of England will think that he is living in a different world from them. In the 30 years since the deregulation of buses, fares have gone up and services have been withdrawn from poorer, often isolated communities. The picture that the Secretary of State paints would not be recognised in Greater Manchester. If the policy has been a success, would not bus patronage have increased? Will he confirm that, in those 30 years, it has gone down, down and down throughout England?
If people step on to a bus today, it is a wholly different experience from doing so in the past. We have a relatively new fleet and much better buses, and the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that we have the best possible services for passengers in future. I made the point to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) that any change that arises out of the Bill should happen only if it will benefit passengers. My expectation and belief is that mayoral authorities and others will pursue change only if it will obviously improve things.
I agree with the Secretary of State—change should be made if will improve benefits to passengers. That will certainly be the case for my constituents, as I am sure he will agree. Currently, one company serves the route in one direction, a different company serves the journey back and my constituents have to buy two tickets. Does he agree that that is nonsense?
Having parties on both sides for several years has led to partnership agreements and now the Bill will ensure that we have the best possible arrangements for passengers. It is indisputable that the investment from the private sector over a long period has led to the improvements that I described in the bus fleet.
I have a note from the chief executive of one of the main bus operators in South Dorset. Although, as private bus operator, he welcomes the Bill, believing that working together is a good idea, he thinks that franchising is a slightly perverse route for a Conservative Government to follow. He states:
“If a franchise model was adopted, this could lead to a future layer of bureaucracy being introduced, and the local authority would be designing the bus network and setting prices.”
Will my right hon. Friend comment on that point?
The essence of the Bill is that franchising will be available to mayoral authorities automatically, but to deliver change, they will still have to demonstrate that it would benefit passengers. They will have a legal duty to do that, otherwise their decision will be subject to judicial review. Other authorities will have a duty to demonstrate to the Secretary of State that they will transform services to get permission to make a change. Ultimately, the Bill is about the passenger, who has to come first.
Bus networks in England’s six metropolitan areas are estimated to generate £2.5 billion of economic benefits every year. They are a lifeline for many rural communities, which I will talk about shortly.
Let me make it very clear: the Bill does not introduce wholesale re-regulation of the bus market. It is not a return to a pre-1986 world of local councils running bus services. Private operators will continue to dominate the bus market. They will still deliver services, whether through the current arrangements, improved partnerships or franchising. The aim of the Bill is to increase bus passenger numbers and to improve bus services by giving local authorities and operators new options. The Bill builds on existing partnership powers, making them more attractive and easier to use, and introduces new, enhanced partnership scheme powers, which will enable local authorities to work with bus operators and introduce a set of standards for bus services in their areas. They both operate in a deregulated environment where commercial operators can make decisions about where and when buses run.
The Bill also refreshes bus franchising powers, honours our devolution deal commitments and recognises the successes of the franchising model that was introduced for London in 1984. One of those successes is the easy access that London bus passengers have to information about their bus services, with over 500 smartphone apps available. The Bill will make it easier for passengers throughout England to get such information on timetables, fares and routes. That is particularly valuable in rural areas where bus services may be less frequent.
In 1986, South Yorkshire had a renowned bus service. It was cheap, frequent and comprehensive and 268 million passenger journeys were made. Since deregulation, that figure has fallen by 62% to 102 million. I welcome the regulatory powers in the Bill, but if the Secretary of State does not extend them beyond mayoral combined authorities, what criteria will he use to judge other requests for franchising from areas that do not automatically get it under the Bill?
As I said earlier, there has to be a point of accountability. That is the mayor in a mayoral authority and the Secretary of State in other areas. Any change must deliver benefits to passengers. Since 1986, this country is more prosperous, with broader car use. We want improved public transport, particularly in cities, where there is congestion and better bus services can make a real difference. We will offer those cities the opportunities to develop schemes that they believe will work for them locally, but we are clear that any change should deliver benefits to the public.
On data, in London, Transport for London owns the data and was able to make them freely available to all the creative web developers out there who wanted to make interesting apps. The problem outside London is that the data are owned by private sector companies, which hoard them in the hope of monetising them in some way. The powers in the Bill to force those companies to make the data open source and stimulate innovation in the app market are important.
The hon. Lady is right. There is no reason in today’s world for such information to be anything but widely available to the public. We believe in open data and the best possible passenger information right across our transport system. The Bill will make a significant difference in that respect.
That point is important. The focus of every option in the Bill should be on what delivers for the passenger. I want and expect the industry and local authorities to use the powers in the Bill, whether on franchising or enhanced partnership, to work together to put the travelling public first.
I make it absolutely clear that the Bill in its current form is not the Act that the Government wish or intend to pass. A number of changes were made to the Bill and the proposals we tabled that we believe are not in the interests of passengers, and that we will seek the consent of the House to reverse. The changes are also not in the spirit of the devolution deals we have reached. After I have given way a couple more times, I will describe what the Government intend each of the main parts of the Bill to achieve.
I remember you, Mr Speaker, warning me that making remarks about bus companies is one of the most dangerous things any MP can ever do. Nevertheless, like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), I have had representations from my local bus company, Bluestar, which welcomes the provisions of the Bill in so far as they enhance partnership schemes, but which worries about the potential of franchising arrangements to introduce rigidity into the system and lessen the circumstances in which an enterprising bus company will introduce, for example, new routes at its own risk, unlike a cautious local authority that would be unprepared to take that risk. Will the Secretary of State comment on that?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I make it clear again that, while we are extending the kind of franchising powers we see in London to other big cities and mayoral areas, it is not the Government’s intention to offer automatic franchising powers to other areas. Other areas that want to make franchising proposals will have to demonstrate clearly that they can provide an improved service for passengers. When making those decisions, we should bear in mind the flexibility and rapid innovation he describes.
As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Government signed a devolution deal with Cornwall in 2015 to give Cornwall Council bus franchising powers. Does he agree that, in a county that has historically suffered from poor public transport, that will enable more buses to be on the road and more routes, and make Cornish communities more resilient and connected?
My hon. Friend is right, but the interesting thing about Cornwall is that it is proceeding without seeking to use those powers, precisely because it has forged a better and stronger partnership with the local bus companies, which are already enhancing those services. That is my point. We are not seeking particular structures in particular places. We are seeking to ensure that we provide the best possible services for passengers around the country. Cornwall is already doing a very good job of that.
It is somewhat ironic that the hon. Gentleman, whose party has always argued for localism, argues for centralisation of something that I believe should be a local decision. That is a matter for local decision making and local priorities. I have no doubt that Southport Council will take wise decisions about what is best for that town, as will others around the country.
As I said, the franchising powers are not entirely new—they have been available in London for many years—but are being refreshed. Franchising enables local authorities to specify the services that should be provided to local communities, with bus companies competing for contracts to provide those services. Local authorities that implement franchising will have more influence on where and when services run, but they will remain commercial operations, with the private sector providing those services.
That is what happens in London. The deregulation of the London bus market took place in the 1980s, but took a path different from the market outside London. Competitive tendering in London was introduced in 1985, and privatisation of the bus companies took place in the mid-1990s. That has evolved into a network with almost 2.3 billion passenger journeys a year. Those powers are being extended to other Mayors in other parts of the country, to give them the opportunity to operate in the same way as London. The Bill therefore provides for the Government’s intention for all combined authorities with elected Mayors to have automatic access to franchising powers.
I am listening carefully to the Secretary of State. He praises the London model. Is he therefore saying that the model and experiment inflicted on the rest of the country has, as Labour Members believe, been a total disaster? Is he saying that deregulation as introduced in 1985 was, in hindsight, a major mistake?
I do not believe it was a major mistake, because we have seen substantial investment from the private sector that would not otherwise have happened. The interesting test for the right hon. Gentleman if he is successful in his mayoral bid in Greater Manchester—I say “if” because he has issues to deal with, such as the reputation of his party leader and the strength of other candidates—is whether he manages to use those powers to deliver the better bus services for which he argues. I will watch with interest if he is successful.
I welcome the Bill, but the Secretary of State is on a very thin point when he justifies what has happened over the past 31 years with investment in new buses. Does he realise that that investment has come from the extreme exploitation of bus passengers, particularly in metropolitan areas, where bus companies exploiting monopoly positions have been able to get a rate of return on capital that is much higher than they would get from real competition, and much higher than companies get in the franchised London area?
In a sense, the hon. Gentleman argues against himself. He complains about competition in those areas, but at the same time says that bus companies have been able to exploit monopoly positions. That is inconsistent. We will see whether the next Mayor of Manchester manages to demonstrate that he or she can do a better job than the private sector. That is the test. Let us see whether they can deliver that. If the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) is successful in his campaign, we will watch with interest.
This is not just about mayoral authorities but about authorities elsewhere. I want to be clear that, while we are open to plans from other authorities to take franchising powers, we will give them only if they can demonstrate that they can do a better job than the current one. A compelling case needs to be made before any other authority receives consent. The key point is that we have the point of accountability with the Mayor, who will have a legal duty to demonstrate an enhanced service, or a point of accountability in the Government, who likewise will judge whether a proposal will deliver that enhanced service.
One of the great successes in London was the introduction of smartcard ticketing, which increased the number of passengers on public transport. Will our excellent Conservative candidate for the West of England Mayor, Tim Bowles, be able to introduce smartcard ticketing using the Bill?
Smartcard ticketing is important, and the Bill should give the powers and flexibility to introduce it. I want not smartcard ticketing that links simply to one mode of transport, but integrated ticketing on a common platform, so people do not have to have a different card for every city. One of the good things we see is bus companies almost entirely using ITSO technology. The same technology is now used for smartcards on most of our railways, so we have the potential for interoperability and to make our transport system properly integrated.
Ninety per cent. of buses operating local services in England are fitted with smart ticketing. Major operators have committed to introducing contactless payment on all their buses by 2022, but the vast majority of bus fares are still payed in cash. Some operators even require exactly the right change. In response to my hon. Friend’s point, we are updating in the Bill the existing powers to establish multi-operator ticketing schemes to recognise that latest technology. The Bill will allow a local authority to require all operators within its area to sell and accept a particular multi-operator smartcard. Under the powers, local authorities will not be able to set the price of the products—they cannot fix the fares, but will be able to determine the technology, which is important in ensuring that we get integration locally.
That might be enough to improve services for passengers in some areas, but if not, the Bill offers further options. For example, new enhanced partnership schemes enable greater integration of ticketing. They allow authorities and operators not only to agree the price of multi-operator tickets, but to set common ticket zones or concessions and to join other modes, with their agreement, to offer an integrated ticket.
I will pick up briefly on the open data point made by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). I want to make it simpler for passengers to plan their journey and to know when their bus will arrive and how much it will cost. She is absolutely right that there is enormous variability across England, and it is essential that that changes. Where the service is good, passengers have access to real-time information, but where it is not good, they do not, and it is important that the former becomes universal. The open data provisions in the Bill are designed to allow public transport app providers, such as Citymapper and Traveline, among others, to develop a new generation of products that will do precisely that.
The Bill will also introduce new arrangements for local authorities and bus operators to work together in partnership. Partnerships between bus operators and local authorities appear to be working well in some areas and passengers are happy. Liverpool, for example, the city of origin of the right hon. Member for Leigh, the Labour mayoral candidate in Manchester—an unusual achievement, if I might say so—has developed strong partnerships with the private sector. It might be something that the next Mayor of Manchester, Conservative Councillor—[Interruption]—Sean Anstee, will decide to introduce when he beats the right hon. Gentleman to the post. [Hon. Members: “He didn’t know his name!”] The note is about something completely different.
Now that the Secretary of State has found out the name of the Conservative mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, and given that the Labour candidate has said what his policies are, can he name one policy on transport from the Conservative candidate in Greater Manchester?
The note is actually about my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
I will tell the House what my colleague in Manchester will do. He will deliver an efficient system, end some of the failures of Labour administrations of Greater Manchester and build on the excellent work done by Conservatives in councils such as Trafford. We will work together to deliver improvements on the Northern rail franchise that will benefit Greater Manchester and the rest of the north and we will discuss ways to improve further the Metrolink, in which the Government have invested. I am proud of the work the Government are doing in Greater Manchester. The Ordsall Chord, the construction of which, funded by the Government, has already begun, will deliver trains between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria for the first time, creating a wholly different experience from the days when I commuted into Manchester city centre by bus from the other side of Salford.
I had not wanted to divert the House from buses to trains, but happily the Secretary of State has already done it. He is right that the Ordsall Chord is incredibly important for transport links in Greater Manchester. Will he confirm that the Government will also ensure investment in platforms 15 and 16 at Piccadilly station, because without it the investment in the Ordsall Chord will be wasted?
I am committed to ensuring that we enhance Manchester suburban rail networks and have the capacity we need to deliver it. Going back to buses, I remember what the buses in Manchester were like back in the early 1980s. I used to commute from Worsley into the centre of Manchester on a bus through Salford, and believe me the quality of bus today is better than it was then.
In reflecting upon regional mayors, will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the policy focus from Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, on east-to-west connectivity across rail and bus networks? Is this not in the sharp contrast to Sion Simon, the Labour Mayor—
I suspect that none of us knows the name of any Lib Dem mayoral candidate in any part of the country. That certainly unites us today. On Andy Street and Birmingham, I would say that Birmingham is a great city that would really benefit from the wisdom and expertise of an experienced business leader, rather than a failed Labour MP.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way to me one more time, and I hope he will forgive me for butting in on his eloquent address, but I have to go to a Committee in 10 minutes. My bus operator is concerned that, if in the franchise modelling the revenue is reduced, there is a risk that the shortfall will be made up from other means that will affect the local taxpayer and business rates payer.
This is the essential point. We have to ensure both public and private funding for buses. Those who seek to make a change need to understand the impact and be certain that they will bring improvements to passengers. There is sometimes a dogma and ideology that assumes that greater state control means a better service, but often a lack of private sector investment means nothing happens at all—so it is the other way around.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State is as familiar with the bus services in Newcastle as he is with those in other parts of the country. In Newcastle in the ’80s, we had a bus service where someone could travel across the region, on Nexus, and use the metro and the buses on one ticket using a transfer. He says that it is not likely that the state will be as innovative as the private sector. Will he acknowledge that in Newcastle we have been innovative, and hope to be again when we have proper control of our buses?
We have never argued, and I do not seek to argue, that the state has no role to play. Indeed, one of my Department’s priorities is to drive forward with smart ticketing across the country on our rail networks in a way that integrates with our bus networks, given the widespread use of the ITSO system on our buses. I do not disagree with the hon. Lady about the desirability of integration, although we might differ over the role of the private sector, which I think adds value that the public sector cannot add.
It is interesting to hear colleagues representing metropolitan areas talk about the hundreds of routes they have available. Will the Secretary of State comment on the effect of the Bill in rural areas where there are no routes? I welcome the flexibility and focus on community transport it will bring, but will he say how it might lead to a greater provision of bus services in rural areas?
I was about to come to that. The essence of the Bill is partnership. In the public transport arena, partnership between the state and private sector is really important. Through the provision of greater flexibility, the Bill will allow for enhanced partnerships that take forward existing partnership arrangements. In a rural area—where it is not always about building bus lanes, for example, but about other ways of improving services—the Bill will give local authorities greater flexibility to work with a private operator in a new and enhanced partnership that delivers improvements without some of the straitjackets in the previous arrangements. And of course we will continue to fund community transport, which plays an important role in many parts of the country, particularly rural areas. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who will speak later, plays an active role in making sure we do the right thing by community transport.
I will wrap up now to give others time to speak. I want to make clear what the Government do not want the Bill to do. As I said, this is not the Bill the Government originally introduced or the Bill we intend to deliver on to the statute book, subject to the consent of the House. The amendments in the other place on opening up the automatic access to franchising powers to all local authorities would reduce certainty in the bus market and reduce investment and the attractiveness of bus services being offered. It would not be good news for bus passengers and certainly not for bus manufacturers and the people who work in those factories right across the UK, from Ballymena to Stirling and Yorkshire. We will therefore bring forward an amendment to reinstate the two-step process for non-mayoral combined authorities wishing to access franchising powers.
We shall also seek to reinstate the ban on local authorities setting up new municipal bus companies. My view is that local authorities have other priorities today, and this is about partnership between the private sector and the public sector. That is the big difference between the Government and the Opposition. They do not want the private sector investment that comes in and delivers better and newer buses, providing jobs in Ballymena. They want to go back to the days of the past, but we are not going there as well.
No, I am going to conclude, I am afraid. I have given way extensively already.
The Government strongly believe that striking a balance between local authority influence and the role that private sector bus operators can play will help to ensure that both are incentivised to deliver the best services for passengers. We are not going back to the 1970s world of local authority-planned and delivered bus services. That was not a golden era, but one of indifferent services that cost the taxpayer. As far as possible, we want the commissioning and provision of bus services to be kept separate, and to ensure that we retain the strengths of the private sector.
We will therefore seek to return this Bill to what was tabled in the first place. We welcome and accept the thoughts of the other place on some amendments—on accessibility, for example—but not the broad principles of change that were written in the House of Lords.
I shall take up that opportunity. I was seeking to understand the Secretary of State’s approach to municipal bus operators. If we look at the UK bus awards, we find that they have been won by a municipal bus operator in four out of the last five years. I do not believe that municipals are the answer to everything, and I certainly would not expect every local authority to want to set one up. Why will the right hon. Gentleman not let local authorities decide what is best for them?
That is the point of difference between us. We do not want to go back to the situation in which every Labour council is trying to set up its own bus company. We think that will absorb public sector capital that could be more wisely used elsewhere, take up essential time that should be devoted to other services and not deliver a good deal for passengers.
I do not want my right hon. Friend to look backwards; I want him to look forwards in this Bill, particularly with respect to the provisions on accessibility, which are most welcome. Could he ask his excellent ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who will be winding up the debate later—I know that my right hon. Friend is wrapping up his contribution now—to respond on the issue of the sense of timing for when the regulations will require operators to provide the bus services? If that could be clarified to a certain extent today, it would be very helpful.
The simple answer is that once the Bill is passed, we shall seek to move ahead as quickly as possible. It cannot be done overnight. We cannot simply wave a wand and bring in new systems immediately. As the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman rightly said, shortly.
The Bill seeks to do one thing; our goal is to do one thing; my Department’s work is all about one thing—to improve services for passengers. The Bill offers a balanced set of tools for local authorities and operators to use to make bus services even better than they are today. The Bill as originally drafted—I stress that proviso—provides an opportunity to make a real difference to passengers in all parts of the country. Through franchising and enhanced partnerships, this Bill provides councils with new ways to co-operate with bus operators to improve journeys for passengers. Open data provisions will allow passengers to plan their journeys better, while on-board information will help all passengers to get where they need to be and will reinforce the message of accessibility that is so important to all Members. Together, all these measures will put passengers at the heart of improvements to bus services. That is the simple and only goal of this Bill, which I commend to the House.
I begin by placing on the record my relief that the Bus Services Bill is finally having its day in the House of Commons. We have been waiting for this piece of legislation for some time—and you know what happens, Mr Deputy Speaker, you wait an age for a Bill and then another one comes along in a minute, namely the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill.
I would like to thank all those involved in the passage of this Bill so far—the noble Lords on both the Government and Opposition Benches, members of staff and Clerks of the House, as well as my Labour colleagues, of course, both Front and Back Benchers, who have campaigned relentlessly for better bus services and have paved the way for the Government’s change in policy and this Bill.
The original Bus Services Bill has been expertly scrutinised and amended, leaving us with a much improved piece of legislation. Labour supports the Bus Services Bill, and we welcome the changes made in the Lords, which we hope to retain as the Bill goes forward.
Buses are an integral part of the UK’s economy and social life. Sometimes, a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to our railways and to aviation, but it is buses that play by far the most important public transport role for the greatest number of people. This is clear when looking at the number of passenger journeys alone. For example, there were 1.7 billion passenger journeys on our railways last year, a figure dwarfed by the 5.2 billion passenger journeys made by bus. Whether people are travelling to work or school, visiting family or attending a hospital appointment, it is more likely that they will do so by bus than by any other form of public transport. Buses provide a vital service to people in all areas of the country, supporting local economies, tackling congestion, combating social exclusion, and lessening environmental and climate change impacts.
This is why we want to see local authorities empowered and enabled to support thriving bus services, and to reverse the long-term decline of bus services that was brought about by the disastrous deregulation of bus services in England outside London by the Conservative Government in 1986. This Bill is an acknowledgment that the deregulation of bus services has not worked.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for being late for the debate. Members will know that I have other duties on a Wednesday. Does he agree that the Bill and its related secondary legislation and guidance should enable a simple and straightforward process for metro mayors to introduce bus franchising in their area if that is what they and their combined authorities wish to do?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. If this is to mean anything, making this happen in reality must be a smooth and quick process rather than a long and protracted one.
The rationale behind deregulation was that turning services over to the market would give the customer the final say; companies would compete and, as a consequence, would better cater their services to passengers. In theory, it is a competitive market, but in reality most bus services are provided by five large companies that avoid competing against each other. Since deregulation, bus use in metropolitan areas has decreased by a half and in non-metropolitan areas by a fifth. Meanwhile, in London, where buses were not deregulated, bus journeys have increased by 227%, mileage has increased by 74% and London journeys now outnumber bus journeys in the rest of England, while fare increases have been lower than in the city regions.
I would always want to see our young people encouraged to use our bus services. I was somewhat disappointed when I heard what the Secretary of State said about young people and their access to buses. He might want to reflect on that as the Bill proceeds.
As my hon. Friend will know, the background behind the inability of local authorities to subsidise travel schemes for young people is the huge cuts to local authority funding over the whole period of this Government and the previous one. Is it not scandalous that this Government have brought nothing forward in any shape or form to permit major improvements, particularly for young people, students and apprentices, in this area?
Indeed. I could not agree more. One of the critical issues facing our young people today is getting from A to B—to get to their further education colleges or to go after job opportunities, especially when they have to work with the Department for Work and Pensions in trying to find work and are then penalised if they do not get there. It is critical to have a properly integrated transport system across the country so that young people can benefit from it.
If I am successful, I would be looking to give young people in Greater Manchester, particularly 16 to 18-year-olds, concessionary or free bus travel. In my view, that could be a replacement for the education maintenance allowance, which was so wrongly scrapped by the Conservatives. Does my hon. Friend believe that that policy could be worth looking at as a Labour policy for the next general election, using the powers granted by this Bill?
I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. If that initiative, which tries to redress the imbalance that has been visited on our young people, is to be put in place in areas such as Manchester, I am convinced that it will completely appeal to people and that it will be the right measure to address the deficit that he so accurately described.
Suggesting that we will not extend assistance to 16 to 18-year-olds says more about the hon. Gentleman’s attitude towards young people than it does about Opposition Members.
Under the current system, bus companies determine their routes and provision of services on a commercial basis, which means that commercially unprofitable but socially valuable services are left for local authorities to support. Since 2010, more than 2,400 routes have been downgraded or withdrawn. A combination of Government cuts and commercial operators deciding provision on a commercial basis means that individuals or communities become isolated, cut off from employment, education, healthcare, and friends and family.
The Secretary of State derided what was happening before deregulation when, in fact, bus services were affordable and available. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Under the current arrangements, we often see bus companies over-competing on the main routes, but providing no services at all to the wider-spread communities. With regulation, we can use the same resources and the same number of buses to provide a better service to those currently disenfranchised communities.
My hon. Friend makes an entirely proper point. That problem is repeated throughout this country. People on our outlying estates do not even have access to bus services, because those services are run on narrow channels. Operators exploit those narrow routes for the singular purpose of maximising commercial profit, and they do not give a hang about the socially important things such as ensuring that people are connected in their communities.
Let me disabuse the hon. Gentleman. On this variety of choice and the duplication and triplication of routes to which he refers, he can come to Dorset, Somerset or anywhere in the south-west and he will not find such issues. That is a metropolitan problem from which we would love to suffer.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the fact that there are vast swathes of towns and cities that are not served by a comprehensive bus network. They are left isolated for considerable lengths of time. Some inner-urban areas have no services whatsoever on a Sunday. That is the reality of the bus services in this country at the moment.
I am delighted that we have an opportunity to put buses front and centre of the national conversation about transport. This Bill is to be welcomed, as is the historic U-turn of the Conservative party towards re-regulation of our bus services, which is something that Labour has consistently fought for.
Although this Bill appears to be an acknowledgment by the Government of the failure of the deregulation of buses, the Bill as originally drafted did not go as far as we would have wished in remedying the underlying problems in the current model. In its current form, the Bill gives local authorities a number of options to improve bus services, allowing authorities to work in partnership with private operators, to plan and run their own network of bus services, or, if they wish, to keep things as they are. The recognition that local authorities can best judge what services they require and should be allowed to select the model that best meets their particular needs is welcome, but, if changes made in the other place are reversed, the freedom to deliver the best services will be taken away.
Powers to re-regulate local bus services should be available to all areas that want them, not just to combined authorities with an elected mayor. Not all areas want a combined authority, and the Government do not intend that every area of the country should be covered by a combined authority. That does not mean that the Government should prevent those non-combined authority areas from improving bus services solely on the basis that they are not combined authorities.
The point that my hon. Friend makes is particularly appreciated in Newcastle and Tyne and Wear where we do not yet have a combined authority and where we do not seek to have a mayor, but where we have long sought to have better control of our bus services. Our bus services are critical in Newcastle, as they are how we get to work. I have received so many complaints and concerns about the bus services. Will he urge the Secretary of State to ensure that Newcastle and Tyne and Wear can finally control their own services?
I have no hesitation whatsoever in urging the Secretary of State to do exactly that. Newcastle has a proud history of focusing on trying to deliver the best possible services for its people. To be prevented and excluded simply because it does not fit the devolution model currently on offer is basically to deny localism to huge swathes of our country, which cannot be the intention of any sensible Government.
Has the hon. Gentleman made an assessment of which local authorities would want to take up these opportunities? In 2000, the Labour Government introduced a contract scheme, which they described as similar to franchising, yet not a single authority has used it. Where is the evidence that more authorities want these powers?
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the quality partnership schemes that Labour brought in. Interestingly, what he says makes my point. It is up to local authorities to make the decision for themselves. It is not a question of people on the Labour Benches telling local authorities what they should or should not do; local authorities should have those options made available to them. From the way this Bill might be amended, it looks very much as if that choice will be denied to them.
Having agreed to insert free bus passes for 16 and 17-year-olds in our manifesto in the run-up to the next general election, will my hon. Friend also agree to insert some words saying that we will allow local authorities, if appropriate, to set up their own municipal bus companies? It is purely a matter of ideology, which is why we had deregulation of buses in the first place. The Government are refusing to allow, from a localism point of view, local authorities that wish to establish their own municipal bus companies to do so. Why should they not be allowed to do so?
My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. It is absolutely right that local authorities should have that freedom. To restrict them in this way, as the Government purport to do, is basically to say, “You can have devolution in England, but you will have it only on the terms that we decide are available to you.” In other words, authorities can do what they want as long as the Government agree with what they are doing—[Interruption.] Yes, any colour as long as it is black.
As one of the few MPs who made their living for several years as a bus driver, I do welcome this Bill. My hon. Friend is extolling the virtues of localism, but may I caution him that localism is all well and good as long as there is the money to go with it? At the moment, we see a huge imbalance in England between the money spent on London for public transport and the money spent elsewhere. He pointed out that the reason why public transport works better in London is partly due to the fact that there is non-deregulation, but it is also due to the fact that funding is far better. Will Labour commit itself to adequate funding for this localism of bus services?
I think that I am being invited to write a manifesto at the Dispatch Box. I am quite happy to do so, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you could just give me a few minutes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the gross imbalance in spending in this country. In the north-east of England, we spend £229 per head of the population on transport, compared with £1,900 per head in London, so there is an imbalance. Undoubtedly, that must be corrected if we are to rebalance our economy in the UK.
It is interesting that this denial of opportunities to start up a new municipal company flies in the face of some of the more successful companies in the country. Why on earth would people not want to have a look at that as an option? There is no suggestion for a single second that there will be a mad rush of local authorities wanting to do this. They will want to weigh up and do what is best for their localities. Why on earth a Conservative Government would want to deprive them of making that choice is beyond me—or perhaps it is not.
I warmly welcome the shadow Minister’s announcement that he supports the view of many rural Conservative MPs that transport infrastructure spending should be redistributed to the regions, away from London. Too much has been spent there for too long, while too little has been spent in rural areas in particular. Does the Mayor of London agree with him?
I am sure the Mayor of London well and truly acknowledges that other parts of the country outside London need to have the benefit of investment, but this does not have to be an either/or. It is a question of priorities and making sure that we do not ignore vast swathes of the country.
We won on an amendment on Report in the other place to extend powers to re-regulate bus services to all areas. I hope that the Government’s stated commitment to devolution and improving bus services is not restricted to those areas that have struck deals for combined authorities with elected mayors. Labour was successful in removing clause 21, which would ban local authorities from forming their own bus companies and replicating the success of existing municipal companies. As the Minister is surely aware, municipal bus companies often outperform their rivals. Nottingham City Transport, for example, achieved a 97% overall satisfaction score in the most recent Transport Focus survey, while none of the big five bus operators broke 90%.
Removing the incentive to profit from operations can allow a greater focus on the social and economic purpose of bus services, meaning that buses can better cater for the social or business needs of a particular geography. Labour did not introduce a clause mandating municipal operators, but simply removed a clause prohibiting them, because we believe that there is not a one-size-fits-all model for running bus services. Indeed, there are a number of solutions for different areas, and it follows that, given the success of existing municipal bus companies, localities may judge that the municipal model is best suited for their area and may wish to attempt to replicate that success. If the Secretary of State is committed to devolution and believes that devolved authorities should be allowed to choose the best model to meet their needs, I hope that the Government will accept that the option of municipal operation should be preserved and that clause 21 should not be reintroduced.
We have an opportunity with this Bill to make significant improvements to bus services and, as a consequence, the social and economic life of much of our country, but Labour wishes these opportunities to be available across England, not just in some areas, and to be available to the fullest extent possible. We are happy to support this Bill, but ask that the Secretary of State listens to the forthcoming arguments—on both sides of the House, no doubt—and commits to transforming bus services in England for the better.
I warmly welcome this opportunity to debate bus services in the Chamber; we too seldom have an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the bus network for millions of people and to acknowledge the crucial role bus services play in our public transport system.
As has been acknowledged already from both Front Benches, buses provide a crucially important lifeline for millions of people, including people who choose not to drive a car and those who cannot afford to drive a car. We should also recognise the importance of buses for the elderly, many of whom feel that they no longer want to deal with the risk of driving a car or can no longer afford to do so. For all sorts of reasons, therefore, we in this House need to do all we can to support our bus networks around the country. I pay tribute to all the people involved in delivering bus services and helping us get to where we need to be.
I am enthusiastic about much of this Bill, but I do have worries about clause 4 and the changes made to the Bill in the other place. I warmly support the provisions in clauses 7 and 8 to facilitate the delivery of smarter ticketing technologies, which, as has already been acknowledged, can do so much to make bus travel an easier and more convenient and attractive option.
I also welcome clauses 1 to 3 and 9 to 15 on partnerships. Partnership-working between local authorities and private sector bus operators can be a highly effective way to improve bus services for passengers. There is a long list of successful examples from around the country, including places such as Sheffield and Bristol. The extension of the statutory partnership structure beyond the provision of infrastructure to include general bus improvement measures makes sense, and is an important part of the Bill. It is also a welcome step forward to enable statutory partnerships more easily to cover larger areas and have a more joined-up approach between different operators.
It is also helpful to make the Competition and Markets Authority a statutory consultee. Its current status as a powerful but somewhat unpredictable presence outside the partnership process can be a barrier to ambitious measures that both the operator and the local authority might sincerely believe are the right way forward. Giving it a more formal role internal to the process can help generate the certainty needed to support investment in measures to improve bus services for passengers.
As I have said, I am worried about the effect of clause 4 and the proposals to grant local authorities the right to specify bus services. We have heard a lot about the comparison between London and the rest of England, and it is true that in London bus routes, timetables and fares are specified by Transport for London and then tendered out to the private sector bus companies for delivery under contract, but London has unique circumstances.
There is a range of factors in London that contribute to comparatively high levels of bus usage, which are simply not present in most of the rest of the country: the scale and density of the population; relatively low rates of car ownership compared with other areas; millions of visitors; very high costs for parking in central London; a pretty aggressive approach by successive Mayors to bus priority measures; and a congestion charge that generates very significant sums to support the bus network. So while I do not see any need to change the regulatory system that operates in London, I do not accept that expanding that system to other parts of England would deliver the same high levels of ridership in places where the circumstances are very different. Indeed, the regulated bus network in England before privatisation in ’86 was simply not delivering great quality services for the customer, nor a thriving a bus industry, and it would be a mistake to look back on it with too much nostalgia.
Is the right hon. Lady aware of the experience on the island of Jersey? It franchised its bus services to a social enterprise just two years ago, and has achieved savings of £800,000 a year, introduced new routes, and increased passenger numbers by a third. What does she think that shows about the opportunity for franchising to perhaps work in other places?
I have not looked at the Jersey example, but my anxiety is that rolling back the clock, essentially, and renationalising and re-regulating the bus network could ultimately mean that we lose the investment we have received from the private sector into bus services over the last decades. My key worry here is that the effect of the provisions introduced by clause 4 would be to enable local authorities, who perhaps 30 years ago sold their bus operations at a commercial price, now effectively to confiscate those self-same businesses.
The inevitable impact of this clause is that companies large and small, who might have spent many years and a great deal of money, energy, effort and innovation building up their business, might be barred from operating in the event that they lose the franchise contest. They could see their operations in a particular town or city disappear overnight, leaving them with buses, staff, depots and equipment that they cannot use.
I am particularly worried about the impact on smaller bus operators, who provide important services in many parts of the country. Those with a successful business serving a relatively small area and small range of routes might find it very difficult to tender for a big local authority contract. They might also find the tender process for running services to be complex and expensive, and require costly professional advice. If the process is anything like rail franchising, complexity can be truly daunting.
I think that people would struggle to agree with the London-centric point that the right hon. Lady was making a moment ago, when she suggested that London was somehow completely different from the rest of the country. My constituents would not accept that. Nor would they accept the point about the poor companies that she is talking about. She is making an argument for them rather than for the travelling public. Does she not accept that, for the past 30 years, bus companies have made considerable, and in some cases excessive, profits at the same time as receiving a public subsidy?
My goal is to improve services for passengers, and I believe that private sector investment in our bus networks has had a positive impact on passengers. I do not believe that reversing that would produce better outcomes for passengers. One has only to look back at the pre-1986 position to see that the ridership on buses before that date had plummeted. It is not the case that there was a golden era for bus services before 1986.
The trouble is that if we create a system in which we discourage private sector investment in the bus network, we will create uncertainty in the bus industry. Discouraging such investment will have a negative impact on passengers. That is what I am worried about.
No, I have already given way.
We need to bear it in mind that, in competing for bus contracts, local operators might be up against large transport groups owned by overseas Governments with deep pockets. I am particularly concerned that the amendment that was approved in the other place will mean that bus operators could even find themselves having to contest for contracts alongside a company owned by the franchising authority that is making the decision to award the contract, giving rise to an obvious and unacceptable conflict of interest. I fear that clause 4 would inevitably result in a number of bus companies going out of business, which would be bad for passengers. I am also concerned that local authorities that are keen to take over the provision of bus services will find that taking on revenue risk could be a very costly exercise that would deplete the funding available to support those crucial non-commercial routes that do not generate enough passengers to cover their costs.
No local authority has introduced a quality contract to re-regulate bus services, despite their having been on the statute book since the early years of this century. I acknowledge that there are different reasons for that, but one of them is that taking over bus operations is inevitably a very expensive project for local authorities. To those who think that passing greater financial responsibility for investing in the bus network from the private sector to local councils is a great idea, I would point out that it involves investment in buses and bus services having to compete with pressing priorities such as social care, libraries, waste collection and all the rest, and that that investment—and bus passengers—are likely to suffer as a result.
Ever since 1986, there has been a vigorous and lively debate about the effect of deregulating bus services outside London. It cannot be denied that many millions of pounds of investment have been made by private sector bus operators in the years since privatisation. That brings me to a key problem with the franchising proposals—namely, the uncertainty that they will cause. If bus operators are unsure about whether their businesses could end up being taken off the road, they will be reluctant to invest in new buses or to improve passenger facilities such as ticketing systems.
I have listened with some frustration to what the right hon. Lady is saying. I fail to grasp why something that works in London and no doubt delivers very well for the people she represents cannot be done in other parts of the country. The insecurity that she talks about could have the reverse effect in large parts of the north-east, where the insecurity at the moment rests with the travelling public, who do not know whether there will be a bus to get them to hospital on a regular basis.
There seems to be an assumption that if the London model of regulation were to be applied everywhere else, it would suddenly deliver London standards of bus services, but a causal link between the two has not been established. A whole range of factors in London contributes to the high levels of ridership and the success of the bus network. Simply reproducing that regulatory system elsewhere would not deliver the same end result, not least because Londoners pay several million pounds in congestion charges every year that are recycled into bus services. That larger level of subsidy makes a difference to the quality of the services.
No, I will not give way.
In my previous role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I was contacted by Wrightbus of Ballymena. The company was concerned about the chilling effect that even the proposals leading to the Bill were having on orders for new buses from operators in England. Wrightbus is a hugely successful company that exports buses to many places around the world, as far afield as China. It delivers the highest quality engineering and provides training and opportunities for hundreds of young people. It is a great asset to Northern Ireland and to the UK as a whole. Its concerns demonstrate that the re-regulation of bus services outside London is not a step to be undertaken lightly. It is not a cost-free option. If we get this wrong, it will be the passenger who suffers. I therefore appeal to the Minister to table amendments that would remove clause 4. At the very least, it is important to amend the Bill to reverse the changes made in the other place, which extend franchising powers beyond mayoral combined authorities and which would allow all local authorities to set up their own bus companies.
No, I am just concluding my speech.
Reverting to the Bill’s original drafting would not deal with all the issues that I have highlighted today, but it would certainly mitigate the problems caused and the uncertainty that is likely to damage the interests of passengers by undermining the viability of bus operations and investment in those services. I therefore very much welcome the intention expressed by the Secretary of State to amend clause 4 as it stands, and I give the Government my support in their endeavour. As the Bill progresses, I hope that they will consider going a step further and remove clause 4 altogether.
I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to unaccompanied children in Greece and Italy, the Ayes were 254 and the Noes were 1, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
I rise to say a few words on clause 17, which is the only UK-wide provision in the Bill. I am going to start by doing something that I have not done before, which is to commend the Government and the other place for agreeing to amendments that brought in clause 17 and the provisions on accessibility. This is a victory for common sense as well as for equality. It makes no sense that train operators have had to provide audio-visual information for years, yet bus companies are under no such obligation. By default it is clear that more people use buses and that people with visionary or sensory impairment are likely to require access to buses far more frequently than to trains.
As part of the Talking Buses campaign, I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and also used my first question to the Prime Minister to raise awareness of the campaign, so I am well aware that at that point the Government were not for moving on this matter. The Transport Minister’s response stated:
“Such systems are expensive to install, potentially creating a disproportionate financial burden to bus companies”.
He also stated:
“We propose that franchising schemes could require the installation of equipment to provide accessible information on buses where the local authority feel this is appropriate”.
We cannot have the Government putting out the message that these provisions would be too expensive for them, only to ask local authorities to deal with them instead.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of the concerns about the cost of these proposed measures are entirely misplaced? When I drove a bus, it was a requirement of my job that I announced every stop as it was upcoming. Most bus drivers have a voice and can announce these things as part of an audio-visual information package for people with disabilities without spending any more money at all.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for passing on his experience. That makes sense. In fact, the Department for Transport’s own figures suggest that the provision of audio-visual information would cost less than £6 million a year, which in terms of its overall expenditure is absolutely nothing.
The Government have previously suggested that phone apps might be the way forward. While apps have benefits, they cannot be the only solution. I was contacted by a company that gave me a phone to trial, so I handed it over to a constituent with a visual impairment. They told me that the app was fine as far as it went, but it could not be relied upon 100%.The app’s functionality also depends on the type of phone being used, so the Government cannot use that sort of technology as a way around the problem. We need audio-visual technology on buses.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the Government on the change? When the Royal National Institute of Blind People gave its thoughts to the Transport Committee, the situation was that such technology would only be for new buses. This measure goes further, so will the hon. Gentleman give some credit where it is due?
I think I have the usual problem here of people not understanding my Scottish accent, because I said in my opening remarks that I commend the Government and the House of Lords for bringing this measure in. I do commend the Government; I was just saying some “buts” as usual to put the message out that they must go forward and fully implement the proposal. That is why I was making some minor criticisms.
As part of the campaign that I was involved in, I also participated in a Guide Dogs for the Blind Association blindfold walk through Kilmarnock—my constituency’s main town. The drivers were excellent, but my experience reinforced the need for new technology. When I went on the bus, there was absolutely no way of telling where I was on the journey or where I could get off. Buses clearly do not call at every bus stop, so if there is no information, people have to rely on help from drivers or other passengers.
I did a similar thing to the hon. Gentleman’s blindfold walk and know how important audio-visual announcements are to people with visual impairments. However, such announcements help everybody who uses the bus. One thing that puts people off using buses is not being quite sure where the stops will be and where to get off, which is why they like trams and rail systems. Audio-visual technology is important for increasing everybody’s bus use.
I absolutely agree. It gives everybody the confidence to go on the buses, particularly the elderly and tourists and other people who are not familiar with different cities and towns. There are benefits for all passengers.
Returning to people with a visual impairment, a Guide Dogs report states that seven out of 10 passengers on buses that do not have audio-visual information have missed their stop because they did not know where to get off or were not assisted in getting off. I cannot imagine how distressing that must be. People who feel uncomfortable in using public transport would be reluctant to go back on a bus after an experience like that. I was pleased to hear that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) has also participated in a blindfold walk. If any pressure comes up during the consultation about costs, I urge the Government to resist it. If anyone has any doubts, they should do what I and other Members have done and go on a blindfold walk to see what it is like.
In conclusion, I commend the Government again—as long as they follow through in the consultation and implement the proposal within an appropriate timescale. I also commend Guide Dogs, and the 30 organisations that supported it, for running a successful campaign, the many constituents who have contacted me, and the 30,000 people who signed the petition.
I rise to support this enabling Bill, which has the potential to reinvigorate bus services across the UK and in Greater Manchester. Bus use has changed over the past 30 years. Since 1985, usage has fallen by half in metropolitan areas and by 30% in Greater Manchester. Meanwhile in London, where the franchising of routes was introduced, the number of bus journeys has increased by well over 200%. For almost a generation, service provision has been based on commercial profit-making routes, with local authorities being able to subsidise loss-making but socially critical routes. However, such services are increasingly under threat. In Cheadle, the X57—a vital service for my constituents that runs from the centre of Manchester to the small rural village of Woodford—has been all but lost. Various reasons have been cited, including falling passenger numbers on a service that is bedevilled by congestion along its route, which causes problems for the timetable.
When people move from buses to cars, congestion increases and services ultimately suffer. It is therefore imperative that we take the opportunity afforded by the Bill to reinvigorate our bus services. The Bill will enable local authorities—particularly Greater Manchester, with its devolved powers—to address current service shortfalls, to tackle congestion on our roads, and to provide a vital link for people to access work and town centre facilities. All that will further support our local economies.
Work is ongoing throughout the Greater Manchester area to encourage greater public transport usage. While I look forward to an extended Metrolink in the long term, I welcome the recent opening of the £165 million Second City Crossing, which is part of the Government’s £1.5 billion expansion plan for bus, cycle, rail and tram. In the short-term, however, introducing a smarter, cheaper, and more extensive bus service could have real benefits for constituents such as mine.
It is important to look for ways to improve all services, even those in the most difficult of areas, and buses play a significant part in that.
As a Greater Manchester MP, I look at the Bill in the context of the ongoing devolution of powers to the area and the commitment to economic growth fuelled by the northern powerhouse. I do not underestimate the importance of an effective public transport network that supports jobs and underpins our local communities. Bus services are a critical part of our transport network, accounting for almost 80% of public transport journeys across Greater Manchester. More frequent and better-quality services are essential for Greater Manchester’s growth and would help local residents to contribute to and benefit from future economic prosperity.
Franchising presents an opportunity to introduce simple and integrated smart ticketing across Greater Manchester. It could also alleviate some of the problems in the current system of multiple providers. Some 22 different bus operators provide services across Greater Manchester. Each has its own fares and branding, which gives rise to inconsistency. Compare that with the single, unified brand that operates successfully across London. A change to the current system will allow seamless travel through joint-ticketing and a more stable service. It could also end injustices such as passengers having to pay a 10% premium for a ticket that can be used across different operators.
Furthermore, the Bill is an opportunity to improve disability access and, importantly, disability training, so that drivers know the importance of where to pull into at bus stops and how to provide the best service for people with disabilities. The Bill will encourage a joined-up approach between local authorities, and it is important that disability access issues are properly considered, whether through audio-visual announcements or just by giving people with disabilities the time and space to access services.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point, which I will discuss later.
People want passenger-friendly bus services, which is about not only how information is delivered, but having good-quality information available in the first place. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who is no longer in the Chamber, about the importance of open data. Open data can allow passengers more easily to compare offers from various providers, thereby increasing their confidence in the service they can expect and when they can expect it. At present, bus operators have no obligation to provide information about fares, except at the point of boarding, or how routes are performing. Live information via information screens at waiting stops and smartphone apps is key to empowering passengers, encouraging the use of services, and allowing operators to understand local needs better so that services can be improved.
Addressing air quality is a key aspect of the Bill. Poor air quality contributes to an estimated 1,000 early mortalities a year across Greater Manchester. The increased use of public transport will clearly help to address the problem, so I welcome its being part of the Greater Manchester 2040 strategy. Air quality is particularly important in Cheadle, where the local pinch point at the Gatley-Kingsway junction causes a great deal of congestion and misery for local road users and commuters. More people using buses, and combined authorities having the ability to set minimum standards for bus fleets across the region, have the potential to reduce dangerous emissions.
I strongly agree with the hon. Lady. Members on both sides of the House have been far too complacent about the growing public health crisis that is due to air quality. The Government have issued a list of six places that they will designate as clean air zones, but Greater Manchester is currently not one of them. Will she support my call for Ministers to include Greater Manchester on the list of places that can introduce clean air zones?
It is important that the next Mayor of Greater Manchester makes a point of improving our air quality and decreasing congestion on our roads. I look forward to that happening.
The A34 is the bane of many of my constituents’ journeys to and from work. I have spoken about the A34 and the Gatley junction on a number of occasions in this House, and our most congested road would significantly benefit from a reduction in single-occupant car journeys and an increase in people making journeys by bus.
It is vital that the Bill works for my constituents by changing attitudes towards public transport, and improving services through increased reliability and allowing the introduction of a more seamless smart ticketing system. For Greater Manchester, it is important that no obstacles are placed in the way of our enacting the Bill ahead of the mayoral election in May so that the Conservative candidate, Sean Anstee, may continue the improvements already instigated by this Conservative Government.
The Bill is a revolutionary step for Greater Manchester, its population and its further growth. Regionally, we need a better, more integrated bus service to encourage a more user-friendly public transport system, and I am pleased to support the Bill.
The Transport Committee was pleased to have the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill after its consideration in the other place. Indeed, that was the fifth occasion in this Parliament and the previous one that the Committee had considered the state of our bus services, which indicates the level of dissatisfaction with the problems of the current system and the need for change.
Nobody should doubt the importance of buses to our local communities. About five times as many public transport journeys are made by bus than by train, yet little attention is given to buses. Overall, across Great Britain, buses account for 62% of passenger journeys, but the figure reaches over 80% in Manchester, Merseyside and the west midlands. We are therefore talking about a lot of people. I have always found it totally incomprehensible that there is so little national interest in bus services when so many people across the country are affected by them.
Good local bus networks open up new education opportunities for young people, provide routes to work—64% of jobseekers cannot drive or have no access to a vehicle—and ensure that people have proper access to healthcare and social facilities. The converse is also true. If bus services are inadequate or, indeed, do not exist at all, many people lose out on opportunities to develop their abilities or even to get a job, and the economy loses out, too. Interesting new analysis that was recently published by the University of Leeds suggests that a 10% improvement in local bus service connectivity is associated with a 3.6% reduction in social deprivation. Simply put, we cannot afford to neglect our bus networks.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties with buses can be the huge cost? My home is less than a mile and a half from the centre of the city, yet a one-way ticket is £2.40. That is absolutely ridiculous, and the situation is replicated across the country.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the cost of bus services often deters people from using them, which indicates that the promise of deregulation has not materialised. We were told that competition would bring down costs and fares, but that simply has not happened.
In England, outside London, we have seen a long-term decline in bus passenger numbers since the deregulation of the bus services market in 1986. Since then, operators have been able to run bus services on the routes of their choosing, with the frequency and fares that they feel appropriate. The result is that we now have a two-tier system outside London. Commercial operators, especially the big five companies that dominate the market, run profitable routes and, as the previous Transport Committee found, a lack of competition means that they are failing to provide an adequate service in many areas. Routes in those other areas have often been funded by local authorities, which have often stepped into the breach if socially important services are not commercially viable.
Local authority budgets have been cut in recent years, which has taken its toll on the provision of local bus services. Indeed, since 2010, funding for supported bus services in England and Wales has been reduced by 25%. Our inquiry heard that, in practice, whole villages and towns have been cut off from their neighbours, but this is not always about villages and towns because estates or whole areas of a city or town can be cut off. That prevents people living in those areas from having reasonable access to jobs and training, or being able to get on with their life.
One problem with the current system, as hon. Members have said, is a lack of integration and proper information. Passengers are offered a confusing variety of tickets covering different operators. Different fares are set and various technologies are used, and timetables are not always properly accessible to people who want to use buses. Accessibility is an important aspect of making bus services attractive. People will use buses if the services are there, if they feel that those services are reliable and if they have proper information about what is available, but too often that simply does not happen. The fact that timetables are not integrated with those for other modes of transport is another problem.
Integrating different modes of public transport is important for reducing congestion and addressing the important issue of air quality. We need more integration of our public transport services—that is what most people want—but the current system does not facilitate that. There are alternative models to the two-tier system of deregulation, and London is the most prominent one. Patronage across the capital has doubled since 1986 and, on average, fares there have been lower than in other city regions. The system that is operated in London might not be suitable for all parts of the country, and certainly not all local authorities would want to take it up, but the situation there shows that when appropriate powers are given to local authorities to work with the private sector, which provides the actual buses, the system can work.
Some attempts to reform the system that began operating in 1986 have brought about improvements, albeit limited ones. Our inquiry was given examples of innovative partnerships operating around the country. For example, the west midlands bus alliance has benefited passengers through integrated timetabling and joint ticketing, and FirstGroup told us about a successful partnership in Bristol. I am sure that there are many other examples of partnerships on offer under the current system that have made things better and been able to address some of the problems.
However, those achievements have been few and have come too slowly, and some parts of the current framework are clearly not fit for purpose. Members have mentioned quality contract schemes. They were introduced to give local authorities the opportunity to implement a system similar to franchising if they wanted to do so, but no such scheme has ever been implemented. As has been indicated, it might be that no authority wanted to do so, but I do not think that that is the case. The system that was set up—not by this Government but by a previous one—was so complicated, complex and convoluted that in practice it was difficult to implement, so authorities simply did not attempt it.
I am glad that the Bill has had such widespread general support. It is the latest in a series of attempts to address the problems created by bus deregulation—I believe it is the third such Bill to be presented to Parliament since that time. The Transport Committee looked at the Bill in general and examined its details, including the changes made by the other place. We support the Bill and most of what is in it. We support the general principle of local authorities deciding the structure of bus services that is most appropriate for their communities. That structure might be a deregulated market left as it is, or it might be about partnerships, franchising or setting up a municipal operation. Our report on the Bill states clearly that we would encourage local authorities to look at each of the possibilities sequentially to see which is the most appropriate to address problems in their area. The question we should be asking now is: how will the Bill improve the situation? How will this Bill put in place something different from what has gone before? How will it make things better? Let me say at the outset that this Bill is a much more comprehensive approach to improving bus services than either of the previous Bills because it looks at the system as a whole and the improvements it suggests are much more substantial and comprehensive than before.
The Committee heard powerful testimony about the difficulties faced by people with visual impairments when using the bus, and we commend the Government’s commitment to introduce regulations on improving audio-visual provisions. In particular, we heard evidence from Jacqueline Juden, a guide dog user, who described graphically the problems experienced by visually impaired people when using buses. The latest information shows that only 19% of buses provide reliable next-stop audio-visual information, with most of those being in London. I was appalled to read evidence from Guide Dogs saying that its survey found that 32% of visually impaired people using buses had missed a stop because they were too worried to inquire about where they were. It provided the equally horrendous and surprising statistic that 28% of drivers had refused to tell these people that information. Hon. Members have talked about problems when people do not have enough access to information and data. We wholeheartedly welcome the Bill’s provisions to make those much more available, as that is very important.
Let me turn to the structural changes proposed in the Bill, as amended in the other place and as the Secretary of State intends to take it through this House. Will those changes make a substantial difference? The provisions as amended—even before that—will make a welcome, positive change. The Bill offers stronger powers for local authorities to work with private operators and for new forms of partnership—advanced quality contracts, enhanced partnerships and franchising. We were very concerned about the Department’s failure to publish regulations and guidance when we considered the Bill, as that impeded scrutiny. It was very wrong that that was the situation, but since that time changes have been made, and guidance and some regulations have been published. However, it appears from that guidance that even authorities with a directly elected mayor, which are eligible for franchising—the Secretary of State confirmed that again this afternoon, as the Government do not propose to change that proposition—would have to make what the regulations call a “compelling case” for franchising to the Minister.
May I ask for clarification about the position? The Committee did not have that information when we considered the Bill, and we were concerned that we did not know what the regulations and guidance would be. I must ask the Minister what that provision means. Does it in any way cut across the commitment, which was repeated today, that areas with directly elected mayors would be able to opt for a franchising system if they want to do that?
We are still unclear about whether transport authorities without a directly elected mayor will be able to have franchising if they feel that that is suitable for their area. I sense some ambivalence in the Secretary of State’s comments. It is clear that he does not want franchising powers to be held in areas outside those with directly elected mayors, although I understand that a separate agreement has been made in relation to Cornwall. However, the guidance is still in place, so what exactly does it mean? What kind of application could be made by local transport authorities outside areas with directly elected mayors? Would the process be complicated, meaning in effect that these areas would not get authorisation? What is going on, and will this be very confusing?
Our inquiry also heard about the deep frustration that communities feel when bus services are cancelled without proper notice being given. We therefore very much welcome the provision in the Bill that will allow the designation of bus routes as community assets. That would mean that the cancellation of a route could be delayed while alternatives were considered, which we think is a very good idea. We also looked at the question of whether municipal operators should be set up, and we felt that, in general, local transport authorities should be able to have the system they think appropriate for their areas. We certainly recognised that there could be conflicts of interest, but we felt there were ways in which those could be addressed. We did not think it was right—we felt it was disproportionate—to say that no new municipal operators could be set up.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend can offer me some advice. Local authorities that currently have a municipal operator will already tender for a supported service. In my local authority, those supported services are provided not by the municipal operator, but by our community transport organisation. Does that not demonstrate that it is possible to have a municipal operator but still operate a competitive tendering process?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. She represents an area in which a successful municipal operator has been functioning very effectively for a long time, and gives us a clear example of how possible conflicts of interest can be addressed. Even at this late stage, I urge Ministers to look again at that issue.
Traffic management has not yet been mentioned. Buses are important not only for mobility, but in addressing environmental issues, and making transport around our cities and towns easier. Running buses cannot be dissociated from effective traffic management. While there are some relevant provisions in the Bill, I call on Ministers to consider activating the provisions in part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 that would give local authorities powers to act on moving traffic offences. The Act is in statute, but the relevant section has not been activated. Local authorities repeatedly ask for it to be activated as it would be important in helping bus services.
Does the hon. Lady agree about the importance of bus priority measures to make bus travel more reliable and therefore more attractive to passengers? Many local authorities are not prepared to make the quite courageous decisions required to deliver priority measures.
The right hon. Lady makes an important point. Bus priority measures are indeed important; they are part of the range of measures available to local authorities when they are looking at how buses can be facilitated in their area and how to work with other traffic to make the best and most efficient use of road space.
The case for the Bill is clear, and the Select Committee welcomes it. We are pleased that it has come forward and very much welcome its comprehensive nature. Many of our communities suffer inadequate bus services. The existing regulatory framework is not fit for purpose, and previous efforts to restore it have not been comprehensive enough and have not been successful. The Bill makes important strides towards supporting bus networks throughout England, but more must be done to ensure that local communities and transport authorities have the information and powers that they need to provide effective bus services. This time, we must get it right. It is clear that we cannot afford another squandered opportunity for reform. I support the Bill, and it is supported by the Transport Committee.
I welcome the main aims of the Bill, which are to increase passenger numbers and give local authorities and operators new tools to improve services. With that in mind, I wish to make a brief contribution on rural bus services, which are of huge interest to my constituents, particularly those in the more rural and isolated parts, because I am keen to hear from the Minister how the Bill can help them. Without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest turnouts at the public meetings I have held have been at those at which bus services are being discussed. At a recent event in Kingsbury, where a route was being cut—I will return to that later—such was the strength of feeling that we had to shut people out of the room because capacity was quickly reached.
Obviously, many people rely on public transport. At a time when we are encouraging more people to use it, it is important that we do not forget the areas that need services, so that people have the opportunity to get good jobs and to shop and socialise, and so that they can choose where they are educated. Sadly, that is not currently happening in North Warwickshire and Bedworth. I hear regularly from constituents that there are not enough buses, that they do not go at the right times, and that they do not go where people need them to go. I have to admit that there is a stark contrast between my time spent in London, when I think of using nothing other than public transport because of how excellently it works, and my time spent back in the constituency, where it is just not viable to use it.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the difference between cities, which are so well provided for, and rural areas such as North Warwickshire and, indeed, west Oxfordshire. I suspect his constituents are in the same position as many of mine. Does he agree that for our constituents—such as the elderly in rural villages who need to get to clinics, the children who need to get to school, or the young people who need get to employment opportunities—the provision of regular, effective and far-reaching rural bus services is a real concern?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall discuss the elderly a little more later, because we need not only to ensure they can get to clinics, but to address issues such as isolation and loneliness, which have a big impact on health services.
The contrast between public transport in London and in my constituency is demonstrated by the fact that if I wanted to get a bus from my home in Shuttington to my constituency office in Atherstone, which is around 7 miles and takes around 15 minutes by car, it would take me an hour and a half to get there by bus. Similarly, if I wanted to get into the nearest town, Tamworth, which is 3 miles away, the bus journey would take around one hour and 40 minutes. That is not a good service for anyone wanting to get to a 9-to-5 job or to their doctor, or to use other local amenities.
I am sure the Minister is aware that HS2, which also falls under his remit, is a huge concern for the residents of North Warwickshire—arguably the most affected area outside London. At a time when much is being made of the speed with which people can access other areas of the country, my constituents currently feel let down by the speed of access to their local towns and cities. The promise of the supposed employment and benefits that HS2 could bring to the area are negated by the fact that many of my constituents simply will not be able to access them. For a resident living in Kingsbury, a community with a population of more than 7,000 that is heavily affected by HS2, it currently takes two hours and 10 minutes on public transport to get the 15 miles into Birmingham city centre, with only one bus getting there before 9 am.
We recently saw the loss of a vital lifeline link, when the 116 bus route was withdrawn with very little notice, leaving people from areas such as Kingsbury and Curdworth unable to get to work, again. The operator complied with the guidelines, but they were not robust enough to enable sufficient notice or consultation to allow people the opportunity to engage or make alternative arrangements, even though for many that would not have been possible in any event because it was their only method of transport. I appreciate that there is a Catch-22 situation, whereby although there needs to be a degree of commercial viability for companies, if they do not run the services when people want them or get people there in a reasonable time, they are simply not going to be used.
I recently ran an event on the impacts of loneliness and isolation, which have far-reaching consequences for our blue-light services and the NHS. It is clear that access to great public transport could have a huge effect on rural communities and afford people, particularly the elderly, who often need our support most, the ability to enjoy the opportunities that less remote areas enjoy as a matter of course. The benefits to the overall public purse could be very significant, not to mention the health benefits that a more active lifestyle would offer.
The hon. Gentleman is making a really important point about how buses can help with social exclusion. Has he considered the potential to create in rural areas what are called total transport networks, whereby social services buses, non-emergency patient transport, and school and college transport are pulled together to provide the sort of services he would like to see for this constituents?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. That is something I have been looking at as part of my work on isolation. We need to take the opportunity offered by the Bill to look not only at solutions from the past but at the innovative opportunities out there.
We need to consider how rural bus services are run, and the passage of the Bill seems like an opportune time to do so. As I have said, I welcome the measures set out in the Bill, but would like the Minster to look at how we can ensure that our rural communities are not cut off and left behind. With an ageing population and the likelihood that people will become more isolated if more is not done soon, as well as the pressures that increased building will put on our already struggling infrastructure in North Warwickshire and Bedworth, better service provision is an absolute must. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on how the Bill can make that happen.
It is worth going through a little history to put the Bill into perspective. Although I support this Bill, there is one real sense in which I, as Labour MP, think it is not necessary. The fact is that since the Transport Act 1985 was implemented in 1986, virtually every Labour Member has seen it as a catastrophic failure for people who use buses. It saddens me that a Labour Government did not bring forward a better Act than the Bill before us now. However, the Government have brought this Bill before us, and it is worth supporting.
Given what the Secretary of State said about reversing the Lords amendments, it is worth remembering why we have this Bill at all. It came about because the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), had discussions with the chief executive of Manchester City Council, Sir Howard Bernstein, who retires this month and to whom we should all pay tribute for progressing this item, which will undoubtedly improve buses. The then Chancellor recognised what many of us had been saying for some time—that this country would be much better off economically if we made our major cities work, rather than depriving them of resources and of allowing them to run their transport system in favour of the economy and people who live in the area. Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese persuaded the then Chancellor, and we now have this Bill before us.
It was always an ideological position of the Conservative party, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Chipping Norton, that it wanted a complete free-market approach to buses. However, the Government conceded that they would allow reregulation if combined local authorities agreed to have an elected mayor. That negotiation was entered into and agreed. One has to bear that in mind when the Government say that they will reverse the Lords amendments. I agree with that in principle, but I would not like to lose the Bill, given that a negotiation happened and an agreement was put in place between local authorities and the Government that will improve life for many people I represent and for many in mayoral combined authority areas.
I will go through two major issues. First, the right hon. Member for Chipping Norton gave the argument for the exceptionalism of London or, to put it another way, “It’s okay for us in London. You lot can get on with it.” [Hon. Members: “ Chipping Barnet.”] I am sorry; if the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) were in her place, I would apologise to her. She put forward three arguments as to why London should have something that the rest of us cannot. One was that it would bring uncertainty to the bus companies. Well, there would probably be a bit of uncertainty for the bus companies, as they will have to compete in a different way to run services, but my prime interest and concern is for the passengers who, for the past 31 years under the deregulation Act, have only had six weeks’ notice—in practice, sometimes less—of bus services being withdrawn. Part of the Bill takes some of that uncertainty away from passengers, so that argument does not stand up, particularly if our priority is the passengers.
To be completely straightforward, I did not understand the right hon. Lady’s second point, which was about the renationalisation of the buses. The Bill is not about renationalising the buses. It is primarily about reregulation in metropolitan areas. Although I accept the deal, and allowing local authorities to set up municipal bus companies was not part of that deal, I do not think it would do any harm for local authorities that saw the need for it to have the right to set up municipal bus companies, particularly if the private sector moves out, as it has threatened to do on a number of occasions if the Bill goes through.
The right hon. Lady’s third point was about the finance that goes into London from the congestion charge. The really important thing is that there was a period between 1986 and 2000, when Ken Livingstone won the London mayoralty, when there was effectively no subsidy. There was certainly no congestion charge for there to have been subsidy. There was no loss of bus passengers in Greater London over that period, whereas the number of bus passengers plummeted in the west midlands, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, and Bristol. The figures fell by two thirds in South Yorkshire and by half in Manchester, but without the subsidy from the congestion charge, the passenger figures in London remained the same. The arguments of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet against this Bill do not stack up.
It is worth taking a deeper look at how the deregulation has worked, why it does not work and the flaw in the arguments in support of it, for those who still support deregulation. When the legislation was introduced—incidentally, I have sadly been around long enough to have campaigned against the introduction of the 1985 Act—the argument was that competition would improve the bus services because bus services were run by municipal authorities that had monopolies and were not providing the best possible service. I do not believe, as the Opposition have been accused of believing, that that was a completely utopian, golden age. It was not; there were flaws. Many bus routes in South Yorkshire, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) talked about, and in Greater Manchester and Merseyside, were still running on the schedules and timetables of the old tram system. They did not respond quickly enough to the changes in population after slum clearance. There were faults, but there were night services, people could get across the conurbations to see their parents on Saturdays and Sundays because there were bus services, and people could get to work early in the morning or home late at night after shifts. All that has disappeared. So, no, it was not a golden age, but it was a much better service than is being provided by the private sector.
It is important to understand why the competition that was supposed to deliver has not worked, and it has not worked for two reasons. Where there was severe competition, as there was in south Manchester, Preston, Edinburgh and other places, bus companies went head to head and really had a go at trying to run the other bus company off the road. Those places got not a better service, but terrible congestion. City centres were blocked up. The system did not work where there was severe competition, but that was very rare. The Competition Commission did a study in 2011, finding that there was virtually no on-the-road competition. Supplementary evidence shows that there was very little competition because companies in the London system—as much as the bus companies’ accounts can be understood—were getting a much lower rate of return on their capital than companies elsewhere, although it still enabled them to invest in new buses.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a myth about deregulation meaning the introduction of the private sector? There were many splendid private sector operators in Liverpool prior to deregulation, such as Crosville and Ribble, which existed alongside the municipal sector.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right about Merseyside. In Manchester, Mayne Coaches ran a service in the private sector, but it was regulated; it could not just—as happens under the deregulated system—decide to run a bus service one day and take it off six weeks later, or vice versa. So the issue is not privatisation but the lack of regulation.
The point I was getting to is that there is supplementary evidence that competition did not work. The rate of return in London was much lower, and FirstGroup moved out of the London market because it could make a much higher return in South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.
My hon. Friend may be aware that, of the major metropolitan urban areas outside London, the west midlands had the least competition, with over 85% of services run by Travel West Midlands and then by National Express. The ridership dropped less in the urban west midlands than in any other metropolitan areas, but, literally, at a price, with some of the highest fares and some of the highest returns on capital. So the competition was not there, and we had the high prices, but at least we had the continued ridership.
Indeed. It was often the change that led to the loss of ridership. When companies such as FirstGroup and Stagecoach operated their services, they were certainly, whether by tacit agreement or not—I doubt whether there was a written agreement—operating semi-monopolies, which enabled them to charge much higher fares. It is not only that the ridership has gone down, but fares have gone up by about 43%.
The question I was coming to in terms of supplementary evidence is this: in terms of the way the legislation has worked so far, does anybody think that we, as the taxpayer, have had our return from Brian Souter and his sister, who have become billionaires out of this—I do not mind people being creative, being entrepreneurs and making money—pocketing money by gaming the system, running semi-monopolies and putting buses out, when every single bus that goes out of the depot has, on average, a 50% public subsidy? Certainly, Brian Souter and his sister have made money out of gaming the way the subsidy works. The system has not worked; it has not been competitive. Moving to a system where there is competition, not on the road, but by tender by private bus companies, will be better for the travelling public. I agree with competition by and large, because monopolies tend towards inefficiency, but the competition is better off the road, not on it.
I have one question about reliability, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) asked about. We are often told that congestion makes the buses unreliable, and it does. However, when the Transport Committee took evidence, we found that, in the majority of cases where buses did not turn up, that was not because of congestion, but because of mechanical failures in the buses, which had not been properly maintained, or because drivers had not turned up. That is an important point to bear in mind.
Finally, I would like to ask the Minister, who is in his place, the same question my hon. Friend asked: is saying that mayoral combined authorities have to have a compelling case before they re-regulate the buses trying to bring back the very high hurdle—the very high benchmark—that was in the Transport Act 2000, which effectively prevented those authorities that wanted to re-regulate the buses from doing so? Is it there to undermine what is essentially a good Bill? I hope the Minister will answer that in summing up.
The Bill presents a unique opportunity to improve bus services, tackle congestion, support local economies and boost regional growth in my constituency and in Greater Manchester more widely.
The benefits of franchising mean that Greater Manchester will have the ability to decide the routes, frequencies, timetables and quality standards for buses, as well as a Mayor to hold to account should the service falter—all things that London has and takes for granted. That will particularly benefit people living in areas—especially rural areas—where current bus services are unreliable. Providing these franchising powers only to local authorities with directly elected mayors will ensure that there is a decision maker to hold to account, although other authorities without mayors will not necessarily be excluded and will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The Conservative devolution agenda has the potential to be hugely beneficial to those areas included, especially because of the ability to apply joined-up thinking to planning and other areas of governance. Unfortunately, I am not convinced at the moment that the leadership in Greater Manchester is taking the opportunities presented. The Greater Manchester spatial framework has recently been published, and it seems to have been done in complete ignorance of the needs of public transport and of people right across Greater Manchester. It seems designed to optimise urban sprawl and the consumption of our green spaces so that councils can gain the maximum council tax receipts, but it shows little to no evidence of how best to use public transport infrastructure. Bus companies cannot economically operate frequent services from early morning till late at night if their passengers are spread thinly over large areas. We just have to look at where public transport works best, which is in areas of high population density, to know that. The authors of the GMSF need to take the opportunity of the Bus Services Bill to reflect on the needs of public transport and to take serious account of the contributions to the GMSF consultation. Essentially, the current proposals need to be shredded and the whole process started again.
Good public transport infrastructure has many benefits in relation not just to housing and planning but to improving jobs and employment, including supporting young people to get into work. When I recently chaired the all-party group on youth employment, many young people compared the opportunities and transport links in London and the north of England. Poor public transport in the north is a barrier to their getting into work. With an ageing population, many of whom reach a time in their lives when they are no longer able to drive, it is more important than ever to ensure that vital services are connected to good public transport and, because of their comprehensive nature, especially to buses.
I met the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in my constituency, and I note that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) took the blind walk, where you are blindfolded and follow the guide dog. That is a disorientating experience for anyone, although, after a few minutes, you get some idea of what you are doing and you get that trust and confidence in the guide dog. I am really pleased that we have now made progress on audio-visual provision, and hearing about it certainly had an impact on me, as it does on anyone else who has spoken with the association. The association briefed me on the importance of visual aids for not just blind people but those with partial sight loss. This is about giving people far more independence than they have at the moment. Sight loss is a significant barrier in daily life, in daily experiences, and in getting and retaining a job.
I am pleased that the Bill allows enhanced partnership schemes between local authorities and bus operators, to require all buses in a local area to provide audio and visual next-stop information. Authorities using the new bus franchising powers will also be able to place similar requirements on affected operators. It is particularly welcome that the Government have, in clause 17, amended the Bill to enable the Secretary of State to require service operators to make such information about audio-visual aids available to passengers. However, I want the new Mayor of Greater Manchester to use these powers to ensure that all users have an improved service—not just people with difficulties with sight but those who may not use the bus services regularly. I will be lobbying the new Mayor to make sure that all buses in Greater Manchester use AV—no matter who the Mayor might be, whether Sean Anstee or one of the many other candidates.
The provisions on joint ticketing make it much easier to introduce multi-operator and multi-modal smartcards and e-ticketing, making bus travel easier and more convenient—the starting point for wider application across the whole of the public transport network. Colleagues may be interested to know that the benefits of integrated multi-modal smart ticketing was the subject of the Science and Technology Committee’s evidence check web forum on smart cities. From its introduction—from the very beginning—it is necessary to collect and interpret travel data so that further improvements can be made to Greater Manchester’s public transport system. Again, I intend to raise this with the new Mayor of Greater Manchester and Transport for Greater Manchester.
The Bill’s requirements for open data on fares and real-time running means that passengers will be able to access details of timetables, fares and routes in a much simpler format, putting an end to the frustration of not knowing when the next service will turn up. This has the potential to be further developed into passenger information apps or websites giving door-to-door real-time travel information and live updates on the status of bus routes, as Transport for London currently does through one of the largest automatic vehicle location systems in existence. AVL allows real-time passenger information, service control, and performance management. I would like to see this and smart ticketing used in Greater Manchester in future, following bus franchising.
However, I do have some concerns about the Bill. The Government must ensure that small and medium-sized bus operators are able to compete in a franchised environment. It is encouraging that the Bill includes a requirement to ensure that franchising authorities consider in their procurement strategy how to facilitate smaller operators. I hope that as well as considering this in their strategy, local authorities will ensure that there is a wide range of service providers—often innovators coming in with new ideas for new routes, who ought not to be excluded from franchising.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that that is already allowed under clause 4 on franchising. Franchising does not provide a monopoly. Clause 4 provides four different ways in which bus operators can provide a bus service within an area but outside the franchise regime, including additionality—that is, the innovative new routes that he mentioned.
It is also incumbent on the new mayors and the new systems that we have in place locally not just to allow that to happen but to encourage it to happen.
The Conservative party has often led the way on public transport. In Greater Manchester, we need only look back to our reintroduction of the tram network in the early ’90s after an absence of decades, and only this week we have seen the completion of the latest expansion of Greater Manchester’s Metrolink. We need a better integrated and thought through service on buses, as we have on our trams. These improvements to Greater Manchester’s public transport network have not always, unfortunately, been matched with great ideas from Labour, which wanted to impose a congestion charge on people travelling in Greater Manchester—a burden that would have disproportionately affected people in the Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport Tameside and Trafford boroughs.
Absolutely—and parts of Manchester outside the two rings. I am pleased to say that Labour bowed to pressure to have a referendum on the damaging congestion charge proposals, and the people of Greater Manchester in all 10 boroughs rejected that idea.
Currently across Greater Manchester, bus services are not fulfilling their potential in a desired integrated transport system. This Bill provides the tools to achieve that, and we must ensure that it does so. We have to think about buses large and small—not just the larger and double-decker buses but the increasingly used smaller buses—in getting this increased connectivity. Buses must be linked together with all the other forms of transport—with trams and rail, and with car drivers by having more park-and-rides. I will do all I can as a Member of Parliament to ensure that the new Mayor and administration take advantage of every opportunity given by this Government.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). It is noticeable how many Greater Manchester MPs are in the Chamber today. That is an indication of how important this Bill is to us.
It is funny how sometimes conversations stick in one’s mind. I have a very vivid memory of a conversation in, I think, 1997. I was sitting in Café Renoir in Fallowfield on Wilmslow Road—
As you do. This being south Manchester, Eric Cantona was playing chess at a nearby table. I was sitting with my girlfriend watching empty bus after empty bus go past the window along Wilmslow Road. I was a recently elected councillor, and enthusiastic, and I began to hold forth to my girlfriend about how we really needed regulated buses like they had in London because deregulation was not working. [Interruption.] The relationship did not last, people will not be surprised to hear. Twenty years later, Café Renoir is no longer there, sadly; Eric Cantona is now, bizarrely, a movie actor; my girlfriend, I am glad to say, is happily married to someone else, with four fine children; and we still do not have bus franchising in Greater Manchester.
I am very proud of the achievements of the Blair-Brown Government. We should never forget, particularly people in my party, how we rebuilt public services in cities and towns across the UK after 18 years of neglect. I am very proud of that record. However, we did not get everything quite right, and that includes public transport management.
In Greater Manchester, we have been asking for London-style bus franchising powers for many years. That is why I am very pleased today to welcome this Bill, and most especially the bus franchising powers, because, as we have heard, deregulation has not worked for Greater Manchester. Since deregulation, bus use has fallen from 355 million passenger journeys a year to about 210 million passenger journeys a year. The system is confusing for passengers. We have 22 different bus operators running about 440 general bus services, and each of those operators has its own branding. The quality standards of the buses are inconsistent. The variety of fares and the pricing structure is confusing. We have 140 types of bus tickets across the Greater Manchester region, and passengers have to pay a premium for a ticket to use across different operators.
It does not work in serving our communities, either. In my constituency—at the end of my road—we have what is often claimed to be the busiest bus route in western Europe. I have never been able to verify whether that is the case, but what is not in doubt is that it is a busy and profitable arterial route through to the university and the city centre. Because of that, bus companies are competing for passengers and, as we have already heard, that competition is not always a good thing. Bus companies are running dozens of buses every hour—sometimes full, sometimes empty, but it is always chaotic and always congested.
At the same time in my constituency we have had cuts to services such as the 44 bus, which served Didsbury, and the 84, which served Chorlton. That leaves communities isolated. The Broad Oak estate in Didsbury and the Arrowfield estate in Chorlton are no longer served, cutting those communities off from access to their local hospitals and to local services. That is no way to run a public service. I am pleased that proper bus franchising will give us the opportunity to design a system that serves our communities properly.
I mentioned confused pricing, and I am also looking forward to our being able to simplify ticketing and introduce an Oyster-style system. Since I have come to this place, I have realised that one of the great things about London is the Oyster system. A similar system would be fantastic for Greater Manchester because it would integrate our buses with our other great transport, such as our fantastic Metrolink system.
We have been asking for these measures for some time and we are ready to implement them. We welcome the Government’s clear commitment to introduce them. I agree with the House of Lords and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Transport that these powers should not only be available to mayoral authorities; they should be available to others as well. However, if the Government are going to reverse the Lords amendments, which would be unfortunate, I urge them not to delay giving powers to the mayoral authorities and not to water down those powers.
We need the powers proposed in the Bill and we need to get on with improving the transport system in Greater Manchester, because we have a willingness to prove the model. We can make it work. We have the capacity and willingness to deliver. We can make public services better for the people of Greater Manchester if we are given the opportunity.
Transport for Greater Manchester is concerned about the recently published guidance on how the system will work, which appears to be pretty opaque and confusing. On Transport for Greater Manchester’s behalf, may I repeat the calls from my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)? Once the consultation on the guidance is complete, we need greater transparency and clarity, particularly on the question of the compelling powers that my hon. Friends mentioned—I will not repeat their points.
Finally, I welcome the opportunity to make our bus fleets more environmentally friendly. We know that 40,000 people die in this country prematurely every year as a result of poor air quality. It is a silent killer and vehicle emissions undoubtedly contribute a great deal to that problem. Air quality on bus routes is often a problem, so if we can set better minimum standards for buses, we can help to tackle those dangerous emissions and prevent those early deaths.
We have a growing population in Greater Manchester and we need a transport system that can cater for that growth without leaving our communities too reliant on private vehicles, both to support the economic growth that we are successfully generating and to safeguard the environment. This is a welcome Bill and an important step in putting right some of the problems we have had for the past 30 years. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) when he is elected as the Labour Mayor to design a system that works for all the people of Greater Manchester.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). I feel I should apologise for not talking more about Manchester. Fabulous place though it is, I think that it has been well-represented in the Chamber today so, instead, I will talk briefly about the importance of buses to rural communities, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), who is no longer in his place, and for Witney (Robert Courts), among others.
Just last week I met the Frome and villages bus users group, chaired by the indefatigable Peter Travis. Like many such groups, it faces the challenges of rural areas—thinly distributed populations, some routes with little use at certain times that are busy at other times, and buses that are empty for much of the day—but the bus is a vital amenity for many people for work, school, or health care visits and to combat rural isolation.
Buses may not appear to be the most glamorous form of transport—they are perhaps more functional than glamorous—but they make a tangible difference to the quality of life in rural and other areas every day. One constituent, whom I know very well, lives on the outskirts of Frome and relies on the bus to see her husband in the Royal United hospital in Bath. In her case—there are endless examples of this—without the bus service, it would be quite impossible for her to function properly. Despite the relative importance of one or two other Bills going through Parliament at the moment, I must say that the Bus Services Bill has every right to stand up against them as a keenly anticipated piece of legislation.
I joined colleagues last year in asking for the £250 million bus service operators grant to be protected, and I was pleased that that commitment was made. Some 42% of bus operators’ income comes from public funds, and although those funds are extremely welcome, the rural west country in particular still faces enormous and continuing challenges. Ministers both in this House and in another place have emphasised the latent economic potential that can be unlocked by better bus services. The key point is that, on top of the issues of rural isolation and the need for people to travel for school or healthcare, there are also economic benefits for a whole host of reasons in specific areas.
As I see it, three key areas are particularly vital for rural bus services. The first is co-ordination between operators, passengers and local authorities. The new powers in relation to franchising and partnerships are very welcome, but it is important to note that places where there is no trend of declining bus usage are often areas where there is much more and much closer co-ordination in such relationships. The Government are absolutely right to reflect that reality in their approach to the Bill, which represents a real advance in pushing forward and in pushing for a more coherent strategy. It seems, however, that many of the franchising powers are available only to mayoral combined authorities. That is a real worry for Somerset, in large parts of which the desire for a directly elected mayor has been conspicuous by its absence. I will come back to this point later.
Secondly, clear communication is very much at the heart of the Bill. The democratising of information will allow people to make informed choices about their travel and to make travel choices using real-time information. We are giving rural communities the same access to information, so that they are armed with the same tools as passengers in London. That can only be positive.
In the course of making many important points, my hon. Friend has touched on something of relevance to my area of west Oxfordshire, where there is an absence of rural bus services. As I have mentioned, that causes many difficulties for people in hard-to-reach areas, but in many places the local communities are stepping in. For example, the Our Bus Bartons bus company, in the council ward that I still have the honour of representing, and the Villager Community Bus have volunteers who step in to provide some services. However, an absence of information in many cases makes it difficult for them to know whether it is practicable to set up such a service. Such freedom of information, as it were—my hon. Friend mentioned that it is referenced in the Bill—will make that very much easier. Does he agree?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, and he must be reading my mind, because that leads on very neatly to my third point, which is about increasing choices in the chain of provision—passenger choice and supplier choice.
I am conscious that the franchising measure will ensure, as the Government have made clear, that
“only authorities with the ability, powers and funding necessary to make a success of franchising…will be granted access to franchising powers.”
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) said, I think it is absolutely vital to ensure that this positive framework is available to all who wish to access it. I am therefore keen to hear what the Minister can say to reassure areas that may decide not to adopt that particular model of devolution. What will happen to them and what might, therefore, happen to us? That is even more crucial, given the potential for cross-pollinating and subsidising less profitable routes from more profitable routes, which would help the less-used services in rural areas that we have all been trying so hard to save.
Those mechanisms and the fresh focus on enabling bus services are long overdue. From a rural standpoint, the Bill should go some distance towards allowing communities to maintain and build on the services that they need.
I am pleased to speak in support of the Bill. As several hon. Members have said, it is all too rare to have a whole afternoon in the Chamber devoted to discussing buses, even though they account for many more journeys on public transport than our railways. Buses rarely get the attention they deserve in Parliament or, indeed, in the media, yet for many of our constituents, they are vital, linking them to jobs, services, amenities and, just as important, family, friends and a social life.
There are few places in the country where buses are more important than Nottingham. Our city has the highest bus use per person of any city outside London, and patronage is still rising. That did not happen by accident; it is the result of sustained political commitment and leadership over decades. I am incredibly proud of our city council’s work, often in partnership with local bus operators, to encourage and increase walking, cycling and public transport use. I will say more about the lessons that can be learned from Nottingham’s experience shortly.
I admit that it came as a surprise when the Government announced that they would provide the option for combined authority areas to be responsible for running their local bus services, because Ministers had long opposed such powers as unnecessary. The change of heart is welcome. Giving local authorities more powers to plan and manage local bus services will bring real benefits to local communities. We have heard from Government and Opposition Members about their aspirations for that.
As many Members have noted, it is more than 30 years since the Transport Act 1985 deregulated bus services in England outside London. On Second Reading, the then Secretary of State for Transport said that the purpose of the Bill was
“to halt the decline that has afflicted the bus industry for more than 20 years.”
He argued that competition would deliver the improvements that passengers wanted, including lower fares. Competition was to be the key to improvements and to increasing patronage. He said that the Government would not sit idly by while the industry was sinking, leaving more people isolated. Instead, they offered
“a full-scale rescue plan for the bus industry.”—[Official Report, 12 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 192 and 199.]
If only the outcome had been as grand as his claims.
Competition did not deliver the improvements that the then Ministers promised. Across the country, buses continue to receive very high levels of public support, with 41% of the industry’s costs met by subsidy. As the Competition Commission found, genuine competition between bus companies is rare beyond occasional and disruptive “bus wars”. In too many areas, the market does not provide comprehensive networks, forcing councils to fund additional services where they can still afford to do so.
Thanks to strong campaigning, London was protected from the 1985 Act, and could therefore build a planned, integrated network, with competitive tendering for routes. That, combined with other factors, some of which are unique to the capital, meant that bus use increased dramatically—by some 227%—since 1985-86, in contrast to the decline in patronage nationally. In 1985, one in five British bus journeys took place in London. Today, the figure is one in two. That is great for Londoners, but not for passengers in towns, cities and villages where services have been cut.
That promise of lower fares has not materialised either. The average bus fare rose by 45% in real terms between 1995 and 2016, with significant regional variation. While fares in London rose by 36% over that period, in other metropolitan areas, they rose by 60%. Since 2010, the subsidised socially necessary services provided by local authorities have borne the brunt of the huge real-terms reduction in Government funding to local authorities. As the Campaign for Better Transport has consistently revealed, 46% of councils reduced their spending on such services in 2013-14, and a total of more than 2,400 services have been cut or withdrawn, particularly affecting rural and isolated communities. The simple fact is that the market and on-road competition have not delivered.
The Bill presents an opportunity for local transport authorities to select from a wider and more usable range of powers to improve bus services as part of planned and integrated transport networks, including the power to franchise services. The ability of the local authority to invite tenders to run bus services has been available in theory for more than a decade, but the quality contracts process has proved too cumbersome and complex to use, although I pay tribute to Labour councillors in the north-east who were brave enough to try.
It is vital that the new powers are workable and practical to implement. The process and any guidance underpinning it must be unambiguous, clear and transparent. Most importantly, the full range of powers should be available to all authorities, even if they choose not to use them. Like many Labour Members, I am disappointed to hear that the Government intend to reverse changes made in the other place to reinstate the restriction of the measure to mayoral combined authorities. If the powers to provide better bus services are good enough for Bolton, Birmingham and Boscastle, why are they not good enough for Boston, Bournemouth and Beeston, and other towns and cities beginning with other letters of the alphabet?
That is not to say that I believe that franchising is the only way to improve services, or that it is a panacea. In places such as Greater Manchester, there are already well developed plans to utilise the new powers—I look forward to seeing them in action. Other areas are considering the range of new options, but the ability to deploy franchising will undoubtedly focus minds in any partnership scheme negotiations.
Not only cities need all the options. Hon. Members have seen how Transport for London has used its powers, but as I mentioned, Jersey is an interesting and successful example of bus franchising. There are examples from across Europe where tendering for services is the norm. The ability to pool funding and cross-subsidise less profitable but socially necessary routes by linking them to more profitable ones could be of great value in rural areas.
I have no hesitation in claiming that my local area has the best public transport system in the UK, and without doubt the best buses. I recognise that hon. and right hon. Members often make grand claims for their constituencies, but in this case I can provide reliable evidence in the form of the Transport Focus bus passenger satisfaction survey. I will not dwell on it today, but it is no coincidence that our tram system is also outstanding. The survey shows that 94% of Nottinghamshire passengers are satisfied, very satisfied or fairly satisfied with their bus journey. That is the highest in the country. I suggest that, if the survey were limited to Nottingham city, the figure could be even higher.
There are three key reasons for Nottingham’s public transport success: consistent political leadership, our outstanding municipal bus company and the presence of an excellent private sector operator. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) suggested in his speech that buses were not glamourous. I invite him to come to Nottingham to travel on a Trentbarton bus, with its leather seats, wood laminate floors, free wi-fi and USB charging sockets. They innovatively show how immensely glamourous buses can be. One difficulty we face in persuading people to travel on buses is that their memory is of their last school bus, which was probably old and rattly, and not a very pleasant experience. The new buses in my city are a million miles away from that experience.
Over several decades, Nottingham City Council has demonstrated a clear vision for transport in the city and a willingness to support that vision with investment in measures that make public transport an attractive and realistic option. Bus lanes and bus priority measures, good bus stops, good shelters, real-time displays and clean, environmentally friendly vehicles have all played a part. While the vast majority of bus services are run on a commercial basis, the city also has a range of tendered services providing links to the city’s hospitals, university campuses, major workplaces, local district centres and the city’s park-and-ride sites.
The workplace parking levy has enabled Nottingham to continue to invest in this network, which is now served by Europe’s largest electric bus fleet and operated by partners, Nottingham Community Transport. The benefits of the new buses are clear. They cut carbon emissions, improve air quality, reduce traffic noise, result in cost savings and, by getting more people riding, ease congestion.
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. It is certainly an interesting one. I am not sure that any local transport authorities in the UK are currently looking at trolleybuses, although I have seen them operating effectively on the continent, including in Lille, where they are part of the transport network.
One issue on which Nottingham City Council showed great foresight and some bravery was the decision to retain its municipal bus company, of which I think there are now only eight left in England. I can confidently say that Nottingham City Transport, the municipal bus company, is the best bus company in the UK, as it has won the UK Bus Awards’ coveted “Bus Operator of the Year” award in three of the last five years and topped the 2015 bus passenger satisfaction survey with 97% satisfaction. It has consistently invested in high-quality, cleaner, greener, new buses that are accessible for wheelchair users and parents with buggies, have audio-visual announcements, are equipped with wi-fi and are driven by well-trained staff.
We are fortunate in Nottingham that NCT is not the only excellent local operator. Trentbarton, a local private sector operator, has also invested in a high-quality fleet, shown a genuine commitment to serving passengers, been innovative in growing patronage and has similarly high satisfaction scores.
Nottingham’s public transport system is an example of what can be achieved through good partnership working between the local authority and local operators, but it is not perfect. The use of the Oyster card revolutionised travel in London, particularly by enabling passengers to move seamlessly between different modes and operators, but it proved difficult to introduce a similar successful multi-operator smartcard in Nottingham. Passengers still face a confusing range of fare options, and there are two different multi-operator/multi-modal smartcards, which give rise to different fares and cannot be used on all buses and trams in the city.
Partnerships can deliver real improvements, but they also have limits, and even the enhanced partnerships envisaged in the Bill rely on operators’ agreement, which can be difficult to achieve. Local transport authorities cannot always ensure that the best interests of passengers are served without access to the full range of options in their toolkit, and I find it hard to understand the Government’s justification for denying the vast majority of local transport authorities the opportunity to use franchising powers. I was equally disappointed by the Secretary of State’s explanation for reintroducing the ban on local authorities setting up municipal bus operators. While I do not believe it would be widely used, the Government’s opposition seems to be based on purely ideological grounds. First he seemed to argue that it would undermine competition but presented no evidence to support his assertion, and then he admitted that he simply did not want to allow Labour local authorities to act in the best interests of their residents—so much for localism.
Bus services are essential: they link people to jobs, training and education opportunities; support local businesses; combat isolation, particularly among the young and the old, disabled people and those who do not have access to a car; and cut congestion. New cleaner, greener buses can also improve air quality and contribute to our climate change obligations. It will be very disappointing if the Government now seek to remove the changes made in the other place. I hope that Ministers will think again and finally give our transport authorities the full range of options they need to put passengers first and ensure that they have access to bus services wherever they live.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). Like her, I welcome this chance to have such a detailed debate about bus services. We usually find ourselves talking about trains—we have spent a lot of time talking about one particular train line in this Chamber over the past few years—but as has been rightly pointed a number of times, most people’s experience of public transport begins and ends with a bus. Many railway passengers start their journeys by taking a bus to a main transport hub from which they can access the rail network. For most people using public transport, certainly those in Torbay, the bus provides the backbone of the service.
It is worth considering briefly how things have changed since 31 years ago, when full regulation was in place. We might look back at “On the Buses”, thinking that it was a great film and brilliant comedy, but the system then would be an absolutely awful model for running real services today. Services have moved on hugely. Nobody would have envisaged at that time internet access, better services, and the sort of high-quality vehicles that are now on the road. Full accessibility is also important, because not that long ago, it was almost impossible for a disabled person to plan a bus journey, but now all buses are accessible.
I am particularly pleased that the Bill contains provisions on audio-visual aids, which a number of people have lobbied me about. Some 9% of people in one ward in my constituency are aged over 85, which brings unique challenges when it comes to planning public transport. In another part of Torbay, well over 50% of the population is aged over 65. That means that people are likely to have visual problems and to have had to start using public transport because they were no longer medically able to drive a car.
The key thing is to break the idea that the bus service is the last-resort social service for those who cannot drive, and that people will use buses only if they absolutely have to do so. As we heard a few moments ago, many bus operators are making their services more attractive by putting in place comfortable seats, and offering a safe environment and on-board CCTV.
We have heard about people’s experiences on the old school bus. I certainly remember getting on a school bus about 25 years ago. It would bounce along—that could happen on a normal bus service, it has to be said—with people smoking at the back of the upstairs part of the bus, even though they were not supposed to do. It would not be very comfortable. The experience was such that by the time people reached 17, the priority would be to stop using a bus. That remains the image for a lot of people, because when they had to use the bus, it was awful. However, many people, including me when I use the buses in the bay, now get a very pleasant surprise when they find that those sorts of days are long gone.
I was on a bus last Wednesday. Yes, I do know where that quote comes from but, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, the focus is on what we are doing today. To be blunt, if bus deregulation was such a bad thing, Labour Governments had 13 years—I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was in the Cabinet—in which to change the system.
Things have moved on with public transport, and sometimes we need to be careful about instantly ascribing cause and effect. Car ownership, and particularly households owning more than one car, has increased hugely since the early 1980s. We can debate whether that is a good thing. In many parts of urban built-up areas that were designed for no vehicles, the fact that households have multiple vehicles has created a range of problems. That has inevitably had an impact on how many people use a bus in such an area, but that is not to say that we should not wish to have quality transport systems.
When we talk about bus priority measures, I am loth to look at how they could apply everywhere. They can make sense in congested urban centres, but they will not make a huge difference in parts of Torbay. We do not have a major central business district or a huge morning rush hour. Local authorities need to be able to choose what makes sense for their areas, rather than our coming up with an arbitrary idea and thinking that if something works in one area, it will automatically work in another.
I can remember dealing with operators in the west midlands. We often heard members of the public refer to the fact that buses were running empty, and we made the point that those services were being run not by the council, but by a commercial operator, which was paying the bill for them. I told them that it would be a bit bizarre for me to write to the operator demanding that it provided fewer services around my ward to deal with that problem.
Before services had to operate commercially, there was an issue with the tight regulatory structure, as it made adaptation and change difficult. For example, there would be services to factories that did not exist anymore, or those that did not reflect new and growing populations. Although it is important that we give areas—particularly mayoral combined authorities—the powers to shape services and integrated transport networks, we do not want to go back to the days when, in theory, a committee would argue for half an hour about exactly where a bus should run through a local housing estate. That is not an appropriate plan for the future.
We have heard lots of references to local services in this debate. I hope that the Bill will help councils such as the Torbay unitary authority to deal with situations such as the one that we are having with the Local Link services. A small bus company—it is not the main provider in Torbay—has announced that it will withdraw all 16 of its services from 1 April. It did that not following consultation, but by putting the relevant notice in to the transport commissioners. The services do not operate on the main routes, but they do provide social value, particularly for the elderly population. When we analysed the services, it was interesting to find that 83% of passengers were using the concessionary bus pass scheme. That is perhaps not a huge surprise, given the demographics of Torbay, but it was quite surprising to see just how much pensioners valued the services, particularly buses 60 and 61, which serve Preston, and 62, which serves Cockington village.
I hope that the Bill will give councils the opportunity to work with operators. I know that Torbay Council is already working quite constructively with an operator—I have been asked not to name it publicly—to try to find a solution to the problems on many of the routes. We are also looking at bringing on board a not-for-profit model. The Torbay Community Development Trust is looking at how it can provide services, effectively as a social enterprise. Some of the routes will provide enough to enable it to wash its face—cover its costs—but will not provide any form of commercial return. That is why this debate is both timely and welcome, because we can see what is happening in Torquay and Paignton today, and I am able to stand here as the local MP and look at possible solutions.
Although the Government will look at individual cases when it comes to franchising powers, I hope that such powers are automatically given only to mayoral or combined authorities. This is partly about having a bulk. Some people in Torbay might think that we could run our own bus services but, in reality, we would inherently be dependent on neighbouring areas.
It is also right that we should know the name of the person who can take decisions so that we can hold them to account—they might be the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) or Councillor Anstee in Greater Manchester in the near future. People should be aware of who those people are. That situation is very different from that of the old integrated transport authorities. If we had asked people to name the chairman of the authority in their area, most would be unable to do so. There would be less direct accountability for people serving on those authorities because they were indirectly appointed by local councils. There was not the ability for someone to say, “Actually I voted for this person,” or, if they did not vote for them, to say, “This person was elected”—I suspect that I might have that experience if I lived in one or two of the areas concerned.
This is about holding someone to account for how they use their power, rather than power being handed to a local authority in a similar way to under the quality contract scheme, which was not a practical thing to use and not of an appropriate scale. Likewise, decisions will not be made in a back room by people who might have an indirect mandate, but one that is not as strong as the mandate of a directly elected mayor.
I very much welcome the Bill. Obviously there will be a fair amount of debate as it goes through Committee and its remaining stages, but I welcome the general tenor of today’s debate. This is a Bill whose time has come. We can all debate whether it is on time and, indeed, whether more transport legislation is just round the corner—
There could even be driverless buses. It would be interesting to see how they would go down with passengers, given that many people—particularly older people—value a familiar driver. Whether they could have a similar relationship with the friendly robot welcoming them on board is another matter. However, 10 or 15 years ago, the idea of driverless vehicles on our roads was unimaginable. Now they are on their way, although I am not necessarily advocating that we should have them.
This is a good Bill that focuses on local transport services, and I think that it is one that will deliver. The Government’s intentions are right, and it is absolutely right that we give the Bill its Second Reading today.
I rise with gratitude and optimism regarding the presentation of this Bill to the House of Commons. The powers that the Bill will grant to Greater Manchester, and its effects on services in Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley, Dukinfield and Longdendale, are sorely needed and long overdue. I am extremely grateful to the leaders of the 10 Greater Manchester councils for negotiating these powers. They include Sir Richard Leese in Manchester and Councillor Kieran Quinn in Tameside. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for honouring the deal struck by the former Chancellor with those leaders when the Greater Manchester devolution settlement was first agreed.
As we have already heard, some Conservative MPs will find this an unusual Government Bill—it is one to which they might be instinctively ideologically opposed. I want to set out why the powers are pragmatic, why they are needed and why, if we all want better local bus services, as we all do, the House should come together and pass the Bill.
I am a great believer in better transport. When I look at London, I see a labour market that is open for employment to more than a fifth of England’s population because the city’s transport system is so good, and I want that for the north as well. I argue regularly, often with some success, for major transport projects in my own constituency. The Mottram bypass—a £170 million road scheme—has already been agreed by the Government, the trans-Pennine rail electrification is under way, and there is a possibility of a trans-Pennine tunnel and perhaps HS3.
Those big projects are important, but anyone who knows anything about transport is aware that the vast majority of local public transport journeys are made by bus and that the present system just does not work outside London. Services are infrequent and expensive, there is poor signage, and the buses take cash rather than electronic payments. There is no joint ticketing between bus companies, let alone joint integrated ticketing between buses and trams. The big bus companies are sensitive to this, but the data are stark. After deregulation, bus use outside London plummeted, whereas in London, where deregulation was not pursued, it has soared. However good the intentions of bus companies might be, they cannot give the public what they need under the present system. Fares cannot be standardised, because that would breach competition law. They cannot be flat within a certain zone, for example, and joint ticketing just does not exist.
In addition, there is no public accountability or public certainty. I am sure that I am not the only elected representative in this Chamber who has experienced, either as an MP or a local councillor, a crucial local bus service being withdrawn or amended. When our constituents get in touch about such changes, the truth is that there is effectively nothing we can do about it. People need to be able to depend on those services. They need to know that they will be able to get to work from the place where they live. We should ask ourselves why local tram networks are so sought after and have such an impact on house and land prices, and one of the answers is that they offer transport certainty. No one worries that a tram will be withdrawn at short notice or following a six-week notification period, but the same is not true of local buses. The lack of meaningful competition means that even profitable bus routes get chopped up and amended to make them more profitable, which makes coherent transport planning impossible.
Travelling by bus is also expensive. The last time I got a bus in the morning from my home in Stalybridge to my constituency office in Hyde, the fare was about £3.60. That is for a journey of less than three miles, so the cost per mile is more than first-class rail travel and some flights to the Canary Islands. Unless we improve bus services outside London, I can honestly see technologies such as Uber killing off local public transport rather than private car use.
As a northerner, these next words are particularly painful for me to say, but I am extremely envious of London’s frankly superb bus network. It is good value, reliable and frequent. No cash is involved. Tickets are integrated across all forms of public transport. Buses are modern and accessible, with space for up to two pushchairs. For someone like me who has lots of children, there is even space for a double buggy. The system is easy to understand. In my first year as an MP, when I was new to London’s public transport, I came back from the Labour party conference in Brighton late on a Sunday night. My train arrived at Victoria station and, because I am fairly tight, I did not want to get a cab back to the parliamentary flat in Lambeth, so I set off walking. As I got adjacent to a bus stop, I saw a bus coming, and I could check the signage at the stop in a split second to see where the bus was going. I knew that I could get on it, I knew that I did not need cash or a ticket, and—we underestimate this point, because it is useful for not only people with disabilities or a visual impairment—I knew when to get off the bus because it told me where I was. If a stranger tried to do the same thing after arriving late into Manchester Piccadilly station, they would have no way of easily getting such information. Who knows where they could end up? If things went particularly badly, it could be as far away as Liverpool.
I know that London has a much higher population density and that it gets revenue from the congestion charge—we rejected such a charge in Manchester in what was another poor referendum experience for most of us—but London’s system is better and we should just try to copy it. London’s model clearly works and that is all I want for my constituency. A similar system is used by almost every other major European city. By allowing the new Mayor of Greater Manchester to have such powers—I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) is taking part in the debate—the Bill will be a huge step forward for our public transport system. Once we have the basis for a better-run system, there will be a significant improvement in public consent for engineering works, bus priority lanes and priority junctions because people will see a system that works for them. I also think that passenger numbers will improve. Although bus companies are wary of such powers, they stand to gain a lot from these things happening.
I warmly back the Bill. I hope that it is taken forward through all its parliamentary stages with a pragmatic spirit that will address the real shortcomings of what we have now, and that it delivers the better bus services that my constituency and all other constituencies are crying out for.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds). As ever, he is an eloquent campaigner for his constituents. I admit that I am excited about this Bill and have been excited for a long time, largely because of the size of my inbox and the number of times I have had to visit the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), about contact from constituents on bus matters or about bus regulation. I look forward to hearing from him about my hobbyhorse: cycle racks on the front of buses, rather than on the back, of which I know he is a staunch advocate.
I support the Bill, which will provide local authorities, including Bath & North East Somerset Council, with the means to improve local bus services. In a city such as Bath, where air pollution is an increasing problem, anything that makes it easier and more convenient for my constituents to travel by bus, or for people from outside Bath to travel in on a bus, should be encouraged. I am therefore pleased that the Government support local bus services and continue to invest in greener transport. I recently unveiled First Bus’s eight new hybrid double-decker buses, which do not break down on some of the steepest hills going up to Bath’s park and ride and up to the university. They will have a huge impact on air quality across my city and in other parts of the authority area.
The bus industry offers significant potential to improve our environment and the way we travel to and from work or relax at the weekend. Given the number of tourists who visit my constituency and those of other hon. Members, it is important to think about buses as not just a local transport issue, but an economic issue that offers opportunities to grow jobs and utilise economies of scale. Creating a financially sustainable economy of scale will help to drive down costs for passengers, which has ultimately been a great success in London. Areas such as Brighton, for example, have also been able to create economies of scale, and passenger numbers have increased and prices have been driven down as a result.
When he is the new Mayor of the west of England, the great Tim Bowles will hopefully be able to work with our local authorities to introduce a smartcard ticketing system in an economy-of-scale franchise—that is to be confirmed—which ultimately helps to deliver real benefits to passengers across the area. However, local authorities need to be able to make changes that help to address their residents’ needs, as local authorities are better aware than anyone else of what will improve the local provision of those services.
The Bill ensures that local authorities will be able to set required standards of service from bus providers, including on ticketing and frequency of services, both of which are an issue in my constituency, where we have multiple bus providers with multiple ticketing options. I have listened to Members on both sides of the House, and unfortunately our system is not the best in the country. It is a good system—do not get me wrong—but it can definitely be improved. We have heard the examples of Nottingham, Greater Manchester and, particularly, London, and hopefully we will be able to share their best practice in Bath.
Will my hon. Friend concede that those places are all major conurbations? Part of the Bill’s flexibility, which we all welcome, is that it also works for rural areas and even small market towns. The Westley route in my town is currently under threat due to lack of capacity.
My hon. Friend is a stalwart campaigner for rural bus services, particularly in Bury St Edmunds. I know the area quite well from when I was growing up.
My area of the west of England is a mixture of Bristol, smaller cities and towns such as Bath, Thornbury and Yate, and rural areas. We have decided that, by increasing the scale, a franchising model would work in our area, because we would be able to integrate all bus services across a larger area and increase the economies of scale. Given the financial pressures that all local authorities are under, we would be able to ensure that the efficiencies are spread over a larger area. We would probably be able to subsidise many more of the routes that are already in existence and pass the benefits down to the passenger by introducing smartcard ticketing. Enabling more people to use the service would hopefully mean that prices ultimately fall. That change could happen because of the Bill.
Smartcard ticketing would bring benefits to my constituents, who use a variety of transport, often across authority borders. My constituents would definitely be more encouraged to rely on public transport for journeys from Bath to Bristol if they needed only one ticket, or ticket type, for the bus to the station, for the train to Bristol and then for the bus from Bristol to their place of work. An integrated system would be the holistic opportunity that we have been missing for a long time.
I recognise what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport said earlier about doing this on not just a regional basis but a national basis so that we can see larger economies of scale and larger interconnectivity between different devolved areas, particularly between the west of England and the west midlands.
Smartcards and contactless payments have made a dramatic difference to way that Londoners travel, and it is about time that that benefit is spread outside the south-east. The changes are likely to see an uplift in the use of public transport and, ultimately, an increase in the revenue that local authorities receive from it, covering any initial cost of installing the new systems.
I am pleased to see provisions in the Bill to require bus operators to provide accessible information to passengers. Many of my constituents have made representations to me in support of Guide Dogs talking buses campaign, which asks for audio-visual equipment to be installed on all buses to ensure that more people, no matter whether they have a disability, can rely on buses with confidence. For people with a visual impairment, getting on a bus is one of the most difficult things, and I know that the Minister has been working hard on this area, as has the entire Department. The Bill takes this issue into consideration, which is incredibly welcome. Without this equipment, passengers with sight loss have to ask the bus driver to tell them when to get off and they run the risk of missing a stop, which can be distressing and potentially dangerous. Hon. Members may wish to take up the opportunity to take a blindfolded walk or bus trip, and I recommend that they do so, as it is inspiring. The Bill requires bus operators to provide audio-visual information indicating the route, the next stop and the final destination. Members on both sides of this House must support that important development, which will make journeys for blind and partially sighted people easier and less stressful.
One problem we face in my constituency is controlling the amount of tourist buses that circle our city, and I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on this. Bath is a beautiful city, so it is not surprising that people want to visit it and see the sights from an open-top bus on a warm summer’s day—or a rainy day, as is often the case, given the west of England’s local climate. The local authority needs to be able to regulate these buses to ensure that their impact is not detrimental to local residents who rely on traditional buses. With the introduction of a new enhanced partnership scheme responsible for traffic regulation conditions, Bath & North East Somerset Council could have to renegotiate the traffic regulation conditions, which have worked well for more than 10 years, tackling environmental issues that had previously been exacerbated by buses. I know that this is an intricate regulatory issue, and I have already made my representations on it, but I cannot stress enough that city-centre residents in my constituency could face problems with multiple tourist buses going round and round in a circle and causing huge congestion and pollution, as we could end up with the law of unintended consequences coming into play. It would therefore be incredibly welcome if the Minister could confirm in his closing remarks how Bath & North East Somerset Council could go about keeping this arrangement, while also being able to benefit from some of the new powers.
Finally, I turn to the part of the Bill that will give powers to new directly elected mayors, such as the one in the West of England. The powers will allow them to take greater control of their services, as Transport for London does in London, with a budget to match. At the moment, there is discussion as to the best use of the transport budget: whether it is best to use it to provide free bus travel for young people or to introduce a smart ticketing operation across the West of England.
I hope that Front Benchers will deal in their winding-up speeches with the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on the costings of free bus travel for children. It is one thing to propose that for 16 and 17-year-olds in Manchester, but our West of England Labour candidate has promised to introduce free bus travel for all children. We have yet to see any costings for that, and it is a hugely expensive operation. Just in Bath & North East Somerset, the smallest of the three authorities involved, we are talking about £11 million. With a devolution deal of £30 million each year going forward, it seems that the entire budget—the entire devolved operation—could end up being subsumed into one uncosted commitment; although this may sometimes politically be beneficial, it may not be a funded commitment. We will need to be aware of that, so any costings that could be provided from either Front Bencher would be incredibly useful.
I wish to reiterate my support for the introduction of a smartcard ticketing system across the West of England area, and I hope the Minister will join me in that. Our West of England mayoral candidate has made a commitment on that. Such a system would give residents and visitors to the area the freedom to explore more with an easier, simpler ticketing system, just as we benefit from the schemes working in London. This much-needed Bill will further improve the use of buses around the country, and I look forward to supporting the Government on it later as it progresses through Parliament.
It is a great honour to speak in this debate and to follow the eloquent and thoughtful contribution made by the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett), but nothing illustrates the north-south divide more than how we pronounce the word Bath. Equally, nothing illustrates it more than how envious we are of the system down here in London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned. MPs are often accused by constituents of leading a glamorous life, but we have now spent four hours examining this important Bill. It is been a real honour to do it with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), Labour’s mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, but that is what real politics looks like: politicians taking the time out to make sure we have good public policy that will benefit our constituents.
It is it hard to say it, but I congratulate the Minister. He was derailed by the small matter of Brexit. I know how frustrated he was that the Bill did not come before the House a few weeks ago, and how committed he is to it. We have some differences over what the regulations, loopholes and guidance will look like, and I shall push him on that later, but he has shown great commitment to the Bill.
I want a better deal for passengers, as does the Minister, I am sure. Indeed, there is no doubt that everybody in this House wants that for their constituents. An effective and efficient transport network supports jobs and underpins our local economies and communities, making travel easier for residents and connecting people with they want to go. I know that to be true from first-hand experience.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was exactly right when he said that buses are not the social services. I recently visited a major property developer in Greater Manchester called Orbit Developments, which rents out a number of properties to businesses. It is a successful company that does astonishingly good work in providing high-value office accommodation, but staff there said that its rentable values are not the same as in London because people can get around this conurbation within the hour, whereas in Greater Manchester it can take half a day or longer.
Over the past few years there has been significant investment in transport infrastructure in my constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East. The development of the new bus exchange at Wythenshawe town centre has brought an extra 4,000 passengers a week. At the bus and tram interchange, the tram route opened a year early, and in its first year carried 1.5 million passengers from Manchester city centre to Manchester airport. I am sure the Minister will know that having the airport in my constituency probably maintains around 100,000 jobs in the region. I am fortunate to have the most visited constituency anywhere in the north of England; 25 million people have come to Manchester airport over the past few years.
My constituency will also get High Speed 2, which is fundamental to this debate. Currently, journey times from Manchester airport to Euston are two hours and 25 minutes; that will go down to 59 minutes with the introduction of HS2. We really are beginning to think holistically about how we connect up the country.
On Friday, I will launch the £15 million enterprise link road for airport city north, in my constituency. Look at the added benefit: Amazon has just created 1,500 jobs on the airport city site, along with Virgin, which has 900 jobs, and Vodafone, which has 650 jobs. I am fortunate to represent an extraordinarily successful bit of the conurbation but, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) said, the key thing is how we connect up that conurbation. We need people in other parts of the conurbation to be able to get to the growth areas. There is nothing more important for that than this Bill, which is why I have waited to speak in this debate.
One part of the transport system that has always been ignored is the bus, perhaps because too many of us in this Chamber do not catch one often enough. It has been seen as a Cinderella service compared with the tram or the train, but that should not be the case. Bus services are a critical part of the transport network. Some 80% of all journeys throughout Greater Manchester are taken on the bus, yet, since deregulation, the number of passenger journeys has fallen from 355 million a year to 210 million a year. I cannot speak highly enough of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). Not only was he a great leader of the council for 12 years, between 1984 and 1996, when he battled deregulation, but he has such expertise, showing how deregulation has really disbenefited the economy in Greater Manchester.
There has been a loss of 2.8 million commercial bus miles in the Manchester local authority area since 2006, with around 140,000 such miles lost across Trafford in the same period—those are the two local authority areas that cover my constituency. That worries me because, if the decline continues, people will lose faith in a mode of transport that is essential to everyday life. I really do not blame the bus operators, as I have always supported private sector bus companies operating on our streets, but I do not understand why they are operating in a deregulated market. The first priority for companies in that market is to make a profit for shareholders, because they are forced to do so. That is how the market works, but something is fundamentally wrong if bus usage continues to fall. It cannot be good for operators and it is definitely not good for passengers. That brings me to the heart of the issue: the failure of a deregulated system to deliver a bus network that works in favour of the passengers.
I catch the bus all the time from my house to my constituency office, to Manchester for a night out, and to the Etihad to watch Manchester City. When doing some constituency work switching on the Christmas lights in Sale Moor village one Sunday evening, my wife and I caught the 41 First bus. The fare was £2.50 each, so it cost us £5 to get one way. Unfortunately, there was no return bus. It was a different operator, so we spent £5 coming back—£10 for a 4 or 5-mile round journey. For an extra pound or two, we should have got a taxi. That route is a particular pinch point in my constituency. First Bus runs seven 41 buses an hour, so Stagecoach has now decided to compete down that route with five 143 buses an hour. We now have 12 buses an hour going through a real pinch point in Sale Moor village. Each company is just trying to run the other off the road, which is not beneficial for passengers.
Deregulation creates a confusing picture. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) summed it up by mentioning that there are 22 different bus types and 140 different ticketing systems in the area. I talked to people from Transport for Greater Manchester, who could not tell me the best system. People need a mathematics degree to work out how best to travel around our conurbation. There is also no maximum cap. As an MP catching the bus to my constituency office and the tram to MediaCityUK, Manchester city centre or Manchester airport—one of my constituency’s major employers—a constituency Friday can be a complicated day, and the costs rack up and up every time. If it is difficult for me, it must be much more difficult for my constituents. There is an integration issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington pointed out. People have to pay a premium for tickets covering two or more companies.
So what can be done to fix the issue? Thankfully, the Bill is the first thing. I thank the Secretary of State for bringing the Bill to the House. I believe that it will go some way to remedying the structural deficiencies in the bus market across Greater Manchester. As has been pointed out, the last Labour Government tried to take some measures, but the Transport Act 2000 did not go far enough, including measures that could not really be introduced because of complications. That could be the failure of this Bill, especially if we get the guidance wrong, so it is important that its provisions are passed, particularly the option for the newly elected mayor to consider bus franchising after a public consultation. The franchise system here in London, as I have pointed out, is second to none.
It is vital that there are no onerous obligations or hoops for transport authorities to go through when considering the case for franchising services. I really would like the Minister to reassure us about that. Yes, it is right that there should be a tough assessment process and a consultation period so that the mayor can make an informed decision, but let us not make the mistakes of the 2000 Act by issuing unworkable regulations and guidance. It is vital that they are clear, transparent and unambiguous, and that they fully reflect the spirit of devolution. I acknowledge the Minister’s commitment to follow through with what was agreed in the 2014 Greater Manchester agreement. Let that not be undone by regulations and guidance.
The provisions in the Bill have the potential to improve significantly transport for residents of and visitors to Greater Manchester, and the option to explore bus franchising is a potential game changer for our city region. A better co-ordinated, more stable network is essential if people are to have confidence in using buses and public transport more widely.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane).
I broadly support the Bill, as do many Members in the House, and I acknowledge that a number of sector bodies, including the respected Urban Transport Group, also support it. However, I say “broadly” because I have concerns that it contains a fundamental deficiency, and I will come to that later in my speech.
The Bill promises what many have been pressing for since bus services were deregulated in the 1980s: the reintroduction, in particular, of local franchising powers. The model before deregulation was by no means perfect, but many, including sector bodies, believe that deregulation has been an unmitigated disaster.
London, of course, did not suffer the same fate—it did not lose its local decision-making and franchising powers. Those remain, and they have arguably supported the vast improvements seen in London under the auspices of TfL and the Mayor of London. Regrettably, areas outside London, including my home city of Bradford, saw bus services subject to intense and increased centralisation.
Local decision making on bus services is common sense. Ensuring local accountability to the travelling public is worth while and valuable. More importantly, decisions are better informed when they are made locally. Why else are we pursuing devolution deals up and down the country?
The case for reasserting local decision making over our local bus services is more compelling than at any time in recent history. That is because our local and regional public transport models are falling desperately short of their desired aims. Public transport is not delivering for our local communities, and that is for a number of reasons.
First, the use of local bus services in metropolitan areas outside London has faced steady and relentless decline. That is despite concerted and strenuous efforts on promotion and education over the years. That decline is compounded by rising private car use across the country. In the largest city regions outside London, the number of bus journeys has fallen by over 51% since 1984. That decline in bus usage, along with rising private car use, has caused widespread and persistent congestion on the roads in my constituency. However, the story of Bradford is not unique. Congestion blights communities, impedes economies and causes frustration for the travelling public.
The need to improve bus services is compelling for another reason: the ongoing cuts to local government budgets. For many years, local authorities across the country have subsidised local bus services. Without those subsidies, many bus routes would be unviable, as low passenger numbers mean that they are uncommercial. As local government budgets are cut further, councils will have less and less capacity to continue to subsidise bus services. The size of these subsidies must not be underestimated. The public sector is responsible for 40% of private bus companies’ income, mainly through fuel subsidies, support for the older person’s pass and support for non-commercial services. Given these challenges, the need to cut congestion is beyond doubt.
The reintroduction of franchising is long overdue. Competition in most areas is limited, and as a result, excess profits are rife. Those excess profits undermine the viability of local bus services, and have done so for many years. Analysis by the Urban Transport Group reveals that profits in city regions are running at double the levels seen among bus operators in the capital. In London, bus operators make 4.1% profit on average, but the figure is 8.1% in city regions. That reduces the amount available to bus services. Dividends to shareholders have taken priority over the bus travelling public for far too long. The reintroduction of franchising across all regions is key; the operation of local bus services in London over recent decades offers strong and undeniable evidence of that.
I turn now to the fundamental deficiency in the Bill: the Government’s decision to restrict franchising to those local authority areas where a devolution deal is in place. My suspicion is that the responsibility for conflating the reintroduction of franchising powers with this Government’s devolution agenda lies at the door of DCLG Ministers. We must recognise that devolution deals involve complex negotiations across many local authorities and take time to finalise. Some are in place and others are imminent, but many others may take months or years. The decision to conflate local bus franchising with devolution is at best tactless and at worst cynical. All local areas, not only those that have agreed local deals, should have access to franchising powers. All local areas have a strong interest in improving local bus services for the communities they serve. Denying the benefits of this Bill to certain areas until devolution deals have been agreed is a cynical ploy. It delays the undoubtable benefits of franchising until local areas relent. I urge the Minister to consider that point. Local bus services are too important to become a bargaining chip in this Government’s devolution negotiations.
I have heard lots of mention made of mayoral elections in this debate, so I should probably declare my interest in saying that I am a candidate in one of those races and will indeed seek to use the powers in this Bill should they become available to me. The comments I wish to make today are born out of 16 years as the Member of Parliament for Leigh and the issues I have dealt with relating to bus services in my constituency, which frankly, in my view, have never been good enough in that time.
To put the debate into its proper context, I want, like my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), to go back to the 1985 legislation. Let me read out the words of the then Transport Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, when he introduced the Second Reading of the Bill that became the Transport Act 1985:
“The Bill is about competition...We want to see competition providing an incentive to be efficient and to offer passengers a better quality of service. The customers…want greater efficiency, lower fares, smaller buses going into residential estates, greater comfort or a more polite and helpful driver. Competition is the key to these improvements. It is the key to increasing patronage.”—[Official Report, 12 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 192.]
Having listened to the current Transport Secretary today, I can only say that he put the bravest face that he could on the situation and glossed over some of the real problems that we have seen in bus services ever since that flawed legislation was introduced. He tried to point to all the investment that the private sector had made and said that there had been service improvements, but I am afraid that that is not how the travelling public see it.
It is certainly not how I saw it when I was growing up. I was of an age where those changes directly affected me. I was 16 when the legislation came into being, and then saw it affect me in my teenage years and as I moved towards work. The Secretary of State is fond of reminding people, as he did today, that I was born down the M62 in Liverpool, but he needs to know that when I was one, my dad got a job in Manchester and we moved halfway between, so I was a regular user of the orange and white buses from Leigh bus station—the 26 and the 39—into Manchester; it used to cost us 10p. The minute the 1985 legislation was put in place, the price shot up, the services all changed, and nobody knew where they were. I could not get to work at my first job on the Middleton Guardian using the bus, because it was an unpaid job as a trainee reporter and I could not afford it. Those experiences live with people.
Anybody who has used the buses in Greater Manchester over the past 32 years since the changes came in would say the same. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) said, bus usage has gone down from 355 million journeys in 1986 to 210 million journeys now. The picture has been the same in South Yorkshire and other metropolitan areas that have been mentioned—a huge decline that is very much linked to the cost and quality of the services.
I am listening with interest to my right hon. Friend as he refers back to Nick Ridley’s speech. Was he aware that when asked the then Secretary of State could give only one example in the whole world of a deregulated system such as the one he was going to impose on everybody in the rest of the country apart from London, and that was Kuala Lumpur?
It is interesting, is it not? I read the Second Reading debate and that point was put to the then Secretary of State many times, and, Kuala Lumpur notwithstanding, there was no other evidence to support the major changes. I seem to remember that there are plenty of rickshaws in Kuala Lumpur, but I do not know whether he was including that in his argument.
That Secretary of State and his Government inflicted an ideological experiment on the country without evidence to support it. The facts show that it has been an unmitigated disaster for the travelling public. Today, Members on both sides of the House should at least agree to call time on it and give the various parts of the country the powers they need to correct it.
I want to say something about coverage and quality of services. I know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) said in his excellent speech—I wish I could have been in that café with him while Eric Cantona played chess; it was a great image—that in parts of his constituency, particularly as it goes into the centre of town, buses are nose to tail. Particularly as they get towards Oxford Road in Manchester, people can see that the bus congestion is just ridiculous. I was with the vice-chancellor of Manchester University last week and she told me that the record number of buses that students had counted along Oxford Road was 34 continuously nose to tail. Of course, that has a terrible effect on traffic congestion in the city centre and it simply does not work.
We have saturation on the lucrative routes, as the bus companies see them, but, as we have heard today, they abandon more isolated areas that do not make a profit for them. The Higherfold estate in my constituency, which is in an isolated area, has constantly had problems with services being unilaterally withdrawn. Then there is an attempt to hold the passenger transport authority to account by saying, “Give us a subsidy or there is no service at all.” That leads to large subsidies for the bus companies that operate in such a way.
A year ago, a Mrs Healy wrote to me to say that the withdrawal of the 12 and 15 services from Leigh meant that her son could no longer get to work in Little Hulton and he had lost his job. No notice was given of the withdrawal of that service. This has a real impact on people’s lives and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East said, because many people in this Chamber do not use buses they might not understand how detrimental poor bus services can be to some people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned the Arrowfield estate. I recently went there to meet the Arrowfield and Hough End residents group, who told me about the withdrawal of the 84 service, which he mentioned and which, I think, served Withington hospital. The group said that that service had been withdrawn without any formal consultation with the community and the new service that was meant to replace it stopped at 5.30 in the evening, meaning that people could not get home from work. It is not acceptable for the public to be treated in this way.
Then, of course, there is the cost. In London between 1995 and 2016, fares rose in real terms by 36%, but in metropolitan areas, particularly Greater Manchester, fares rose by 60%. As we have heard today, the fare for a single journey can often cost more than £3. Because of the free-for-all, because operators are all running different ticketing systems and because of the chaos, we cannot have an integrated Oyster-style system, so, again, the public lose out.
During a consultation with young people in Bury a few months ago, I asked about the issues facing them, and the cost of transport came up again and again. I asked them whether they travelled on buses and whether they could afford it—this goes back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East—and the answer was that it was cheaper to get an Uber. If there are four of them, they can get an Uber together and it is cheaper than the bus.
Is it any wonder that the roads of Greater Manchester are becoming more and more congested as every year goes by? As the quality and the coverage of our bus service has gone down and the cost has gone up during the past 30 years, congestion has got worse and worse. That is affecting the air quality in Greater Manchester, and it means that Greater Manchester is in breach of the standards—the legal limits—for nitrogen dioxide. This simply cannot carry on, and I welcome the focus in the Bill on air quality.
I hope that the Government will go further and give Greater Manchester the powers to introduce a clean air zone. I ask the Minister: what reason can there be for the Government to exclude Greater Manchester from the list of places that they have allowed to introduce clean air zones, other than cost? Cost is not a good enough reason. It is not good enough that children are breathing in polluted air on the way to school. We look forward to his and the Government’s help in solving that problem.
If all of this were not bad enough in the experience of the travelling public, we are paying through the nose for it as well. A £100 million subsidy has been given to the bus companies annually, while at the same time they have been paying out large dividends to their shareholders. This system really does not work for the public in any meaningful way. As I say, it is time to call time on what is a failed ideological experiment.
I give credit to Sir Howard Bernstein, who has been mentioned, and Sir Richard Leese and Lord Peter Smith, as well as other leaders of Greater Manchester, who in my view were right to insist that the Bill should be part of the devolution deal that was done with Greater Manchester. I pay tribute to the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), for agreeing to that request, and indeed to the current Minister and the Secretary of State for sticking by the deal and making sure that the Bill was put before the House.
However, I want to press the Minister and the Government on a number of concerns. An issue that several colleagues have raised today is the decision to reintroduce the clause that will restrict municipal ownership of bus companies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, why restrict people, because we could at least have that as an option? From my point of view, as someone who might consider using the franchising powers, to have the fall-back option of a publicly owned company being able to come in and provide the service if there were no bidders on the terms sought would provide leverage, would it not? It would do so if they knew they could run a service because they had such an option up their sleeve. I say to the Minister that nobody wants anything to happen to the Bill that might disrupt its passage, but the Government should surely give people such flexibility so that they can make full use of the powers proposed in it.
Another issue I want to mention is the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton. He talked about the regulations that have been published very recently—within the past couple of days—relating to the Bill. They state that the powers in the Bill can be given to a metropolitan mayoral area only if a “compelling case” is presented—not just a viable case, but a compelling one. In his winding-up speech, the Minister needs to spell out precisely what that means. Is he erecting a high hurdle to prevent metropolitan mayors from using the powers in the Bill?
The Minister shakes his head, but I want to see more reassurance than that. If he wants to intervene and say more about it now, he is more than welcome to do so. We cannot have such obstacles placed in our way that may actually limit our ability to use the welcome powers in the Bill.
I see that the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) has retaken her seat, and I do not want to finish without making some reference to her speech. Frankly, I did find it quite difficult to listen to at times. She said that it was right for London to have the powers it gained by being exempted from the original deregulation measures because London is so different. I will tell her one way in which London is different: for every £1 in transport investment that we receive in the whole of the north of England, London gets £6. That inequality has existed for many decades. Consequently, people in London have several public transport options. They can use high-quality commuter trains, the tube network, the docklands light railway, regulated buses, and the bike scheme and dedicated cycle lanes. My constituents have no such choice. They are stuck with using the bus if they do not have a car. That is the difference. It is so wrong of the right hon. Lady to say that what is acceptable for her constituents is not right for Opposition Members’ constituents, who are stuck in their cars.
I am a great supporter of investment in infrastructure in the north of England. It is vital to rebalancing our economy. My point was that re-regulating the bus industry outside London will not solve problems with bus services, but arguably make them worse.
Instead of deleting the clause that lets us try, why does she not let us be the judge of that? My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton warned of the consequences when he was leader of Manchester City Council when deregulation was introduced. He has been proved right. If Government Members now believe in devolution, let them give us the chance to try. Then the right hon. Lady may be able to come back and say that it has not worked, but I believe that we will make it work. I am confident that we can make it work.
We just had a classic example of the Conservative party telling people in the north to know their place and be no better than they should be. In my right hon. Friend’s list of transport options in London, he neglected to mention the innovation by the recent Conservative Mayor of London, the cable car, which has been a disaster.
I agree with my hon. Friend that if the constituents of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and other London Members had a public transport system like that of our constituents, there would be riots on the streets. They would not put up with it, yet we are told that we should. I am sorry, but we will not put up with it anymore; we are going to have improvements.
It is not a matter of north-south. In Suffolk, I would love a service like the one in London. The issue is therefore nothing pejorative like north-south, but the quality of service that all our constituents deserve. I hope that the Bill will start to unravel some of those inequalities.
I agree that it is not north-south. It is a problem in our political system: London-centricity. Why was London allowed to opt out in 1985 when everywhere else had to take part in the experiment without evidence to support it? Because most policy makers in the House of Lords, this place and the Government civil service live within the M25, they thought that the services were fine and that there was no problem because theirs were regulated, while everyone else was going through chaos. That explains why devolution is necessary. It means that we can fix the problem for the benefit of the travelling public.
I agree absolutely about the cable car. If there is the money here to throw at cable cars that people do not use, that makes the point about the inequality in transport investment. It is just not right.
Investment has been committed for HS2, but we are now considering two other potential major investments: HS3, or northern powerhouse rail, and Crossrail 2. In my view, HS3 is the highest transport investment priority for this country: high quality rail linking the great cities of the north. I would say that it is a higher priority than HS2, but it is absolutely a higher priority than Crossrail 2. If the Government put Crossrail 2 before HS3 in the queue for investment, they will perpetuate the gross inequality of many decades in transport investment in our country.
I agree—that was the conclusion of the independent economic review. The Government should build HS2 and HS3 as one system. Why build one, go away and do the north another time? Why not build them together as a single high-speed railway and high-quality infrastructure project that will deliver those economic benefits? I say to the Government that we cannot have a northern powerhouse without that kind of investment—it is essential to delivering the economic benefits my hon. Friend described.
While we are on the subject of HS2 and HS3, and while the Minister is in his place, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that HS3 goes ahead at the same time to ensure that we get the station locations right in each city centre? That argument is going on in South Yorkshire as well.
I agree, because there are benefits from linking HS2 and HS3. I would like a parkway station in my constituency—Leigh would be the place where the preferred HS3 route crosses HS2. The benefits in terms of taking traffic off the M6 and the East Lancs are enormous. That is why they should be planned as a single scheme. I drive a lot around Greater Manchester and the north of England. Congestion is getting worse. Anybody travelling on the M62 today between Manchester and west Yorkshire, or between Manchester and Liverpool, or over to Sheffield, which is even worse, will know that the congestion is not sustainable. We are trying to attract people to invest in the northern powerhouse, but congestion could be the factor that deters them. The Government need to give us certainty about northern powerhouse rail so that we can begin to reassure people that the north will move, and that it will be the powerhouse that the Government have spoken about.
My right hon. Friend makes profound good sense about linking HS2 and HS3. Does he agree that the critical decision in getting both HS2 phase 2 and HS3 is the schedule in Parliament for the hybrid Bill? If the hybrid Bill for Crossrail 2 gets in front of that, we will not finish HS2 in most of our political lifetimes, and we will certainly will not integrate it with HS3.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The Government need to be honest about their intentions. It would be a gross unfairness if they put Crossrail 2 ahead of HS3 or northern powerhouse rail, or even HS2, in the legislative or Treasury queue. I cannot see how that could possibly be allowed to happen. If they commit now to HS3, the investment potential that would be unlocked immediately would be enormous. I hope the Government listen carefully to that argument—I see the Minister nod. I am speaking not only for businesses in Greater Manchester, but for businesses across the north of England, which see the poor quality of transport as the biggest threat to our future economic prosperity.
If elected in two months’ time, I intend to use the powers provided by the Bill to bring fares down in Greater Manchester, particularly for young people, as I have said. I intend to use the powers in the Bill to improve the quality and coverage of services, and to ensure that those isolated areas and more deprived parts of Greater Manchester have a reliable and regular service. I want to improve the travelling environment for all the public, but particularly for disabled people and visually impaired people. I want to do all of those things.
For the last 30 years, the public in Greater Manchester have had to put up with buses run in the private interest rather than the public interest. It is time to take our buses back and put people before profits.
It is a pleasure to follow such excellent speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), whom I was proud to serve as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Labour Government. I hope that he will be elected as Mayor of Manchester in May.
When I was shadow Transport Secretary, I found that there was a great deal of media attention if I said something about the railways but that very few people were interested in buses, yet in cities such as Wakefield, twice as many people travel by bus as travel by train. I believe that everybody should have the right to get on a cheap, clean bus, no matter where they live, their age or if they have a disability. I am therefore pleased that buses are finally getting the attention they deserve and that Labour is supporting the Bill.
This is also a day for reflection on the Transport Act 1985, which has dominated the bus travelling lives of everyone in the House. It privatised and deregulated Britain’s bus services outside London, since when the number of bus journeys outside the capital has fallen by more than a third. I remember growing up in Coventry. The bus was my lifeline to school and in and out of work when I was a Saturday girl at British Home Stores—I do not think that I made any pension contributions, but I will be checking my wage slips when I get home. There was a time in the heyday of the early ’80s when children in Coventry travelled across the west midlands for 2p. That taught young people where the buses went, the routes, and the places they could go—we could go to the ice rink in Solihull; we did not have one in Coventry. That opened up all sorts of opportunities. If we do not get people travelling on buses when they are young, we will not persuade them to do so when they grow older.
Bus patronage in Yorkshire has halved since deregulation in 1985. The cut to services across Wakefield has left people on estates and in small towns and villages isolated. As colleagues have said about their own areas, it is cheaper in my city to get a taxi than to put yourself and three children on a bus—people in London forget that children outside London do not get free bus travel. The situation affects parental choices about where their children can go to school, because they have to think about whether they can afford the bus fares as well as school dinners and uniforms.
In London, which is the city whose Labour Mayor introduced the congestion charge, and which fought and won the battle against deregulation, bus passenger numbers have doubled. There we have it—numbers have halved in Yorkshire and doubled in London. When the Secretary of State talks about the number of bus journeys, we have to ask ourselves what it would have been without deregulation. The economy has grown, but in real terms bus patronage outside London has fallen.
There has been much waxing lyrical about investment from the private sector bus companies, but we forget—I have not heard this mentioned—that 41% of bus funding comes from the taxpayer. That has fallen from a figure of 46% when we left office in 2010. We, as democratically elected Members, and our local authority colleagues, as democratically elected local representatives, have a right to say how the money is spent and to see that buses are run as public services in the public interest, not as private services in the private interest.
At the last election, Labour promised more powers to regulate Britain’s bus services, and as the Bill goes some way to doing that, we support the Government’s U-turn. The fact that there are more bus journeys in London today than in the rest of country put together is an indictment of the past 30 years of bus policy under this and previous Conservative Governments, as well as the previous Labour Government. In the rest of the country, bus services are infrequent, run as monopolies and expensive. In London, as I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, open data are widely available, providing accurate and real-time information about buses. I use the Bus Checker app. It works in certain cities outside London, but not all of them. In most other parts of the country, bus travel information is held by bus companies and is not publicly available.
On funding concerns, there is no mention of money in the Bill. Buses are really important to the most vulnerable sections of our society—people on low incomes, the unemployed, the young, the disabled and the elderly. Blind people have a right to hear their stop called out; they should not have to rely on the kindness of other passengers. I have been on buses in London when, in a bit of a dream, perhaps thinking about some weighty matter before the House, I have found the audio-visual cues quite useful to rouse me from my reverie. Thanks to Labour’s free bus pass, one third of all bus journeys are taken by older and disabled people. While our planes, trains and roads are seen as economically important, buses are seen as a Cinderella service. Local transport authorities need more powers, but franchising, advanced quality partnerships and ticketing changes are only one part of the solution. The other essential tool that councils need—money—is missing from this Bill.
In 2010, the spending review slashed the bus service operators grant by 20%, and the 2015 local government settlement announced funding cuts to local government of 24% in real terms over this Parliament. It is a disgrace that a Government who have pledged to close the north-south gap have been found in a report published a couple of weeks ago by the Institute for Public Policy Research to be investing 10 times more funding per person for transport projects in London than in Yorkshire. Research by the Campaign for Better Transport shows that Government cuts have forced councils to slash bus subsidies by £78 million since 2010. What has that meant in the real world? Nearly half of councils have withdrawn bus services. The pressure on councils in all areas of the country to divert money away from bus services is huge.
Although I welcome the fact that the Bill finally gives authorities powers to create integrated transport and ticketing systems, the Government must extend these powers everywhere. They must be extended to Wakefield and Leeds in West Yorkshire, not just to areas with metro Mayors such as Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Bristol. Some of the best bus services in Britain are provided by municipal bus companies that are still owned at arm’s length by their councils, as we heard in the excellent speech made by my successor as shadow Transport Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood).
Cities such as Nottingham and Reading boast some of best passenger satisfaction ratings in the country, but I am concerned that clause 21 of the original Bill would remove the rights of councils to set up municipal bus companies. Councils have a general power to promote economic and social development in their area, so I cannot understand why, if a council is giving planning permission for a new out-of-town shopping centre or a workplace such as a new build factory, it should be unable to provide the bus services that will be necessary to get people to and from those places. That should fall under the general economic powers of councils.
I hope that the Government will not seek to reintroduce clause 21, which is ideologically driven. We need a heavy dose of pragmatism and a lot less so-called competition-driven ideology when it comes to buses. In London’s regulated system, the big five bus companies have managed to make a profit, and a regulated system operates across Europe. There is no reason why companies cannot operate and make money in the rest of the country, including my city of Wakefield. I hope the Secretary of State and the Minister will commit to improving bus services for all areas, not just cities with directly elected mayors.
My second major point is the environmental obligations that we need to put on bus operators to invest in ultra-low emission vehicles, such as those being rolled out in London by Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan. We have an air pollution crisis in this country, and we know that buses can help to tackle pollution by being greener and by cutting congestion.
The Royal College of Physicians estimates that air pollution causes 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year. Some 38 of the Government’s 43 air quality management areas, including Wakefield, have illegally high levels of nitrogen oxides—pollutants that cause respiratory diseases. It is very difficult to tackle this. Wakefield is at the intersection of the M1 and the M62 motorways, but there is also significant congestion in the city centre at rush hour, which is adding to our problems. These pollutants have been linked to heart disease and low birth weight in babies, so our constituents are affected before they are even born.
The Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, published its report “Sustainability in the Department for Transport” last September. I hope that the Minister has read it; perhaps I will test him on some of its findings when he makes his winding-up remarks. We found that progress on tackling air pollution was too slow. Critically, the Government are set to miss the Committee on Climate Change’s target for 9% of cars to be ultra-low emission by 2020. During our inquiry, we asked the Minister whether the 9% figure was reflected in his single departmental plan. We went to and fro over the issue. Eventually, in a letter from the civil servant responsible for this matter, we found out that the target was no longer 9%, but between 3% and 7%, with a mid-point of 5%. However, even that target is looking pretty unachievable because only 1.5% of England’s vehicles are currently ultra-low emission. We will not hit the 5% target, and we might be lucky to hit 3% over the next three years.
We need to be on the most cost-effective path to tackle transport emissions, and that means that we should be looking at a 9% target. We have no confidence that the UK will achieve a 60% market share for ultra-low emission vehicles by 2030. There is absolutely no strategy or policy in this area beyond 2020—[Interruption.] I can see the Ministers talking. I will be happy to take an intervention from them if they can put me right.
Last year, the High Court found that the Government’s plan to tackle air pollution was illegal. This Government have repeatedly delayed, postponed and pushed back the publication of their emissions reduction plan. This Bill is an opportunity to reverse that lack of ambition and incentivise the manufacture and uptake of zero-emission buses. Transport for London told my Committee that when the Government cut the 6p per kilometre payments for hybrid buses through the bus service operators grant, the costs of making its entire double-decker fleet zero-emission suddenly ran out of control. My Committee heard that the amount of funding available through the local sustainable transport fund and the clean bus technology fund is too small and not of the scale necessary to tackle this issue across our country.
The big bus operators in London are investing in green buses—as we have heard, London gets more bus grant—but its old buses are cascaded down to cities such as mine. Diesel pollution problems are transported out of London to cities that have exactly the same problems, but less money to sort them out. That is fundamentally unfair.
Labour Lords amended the Bill to require all new buses commissioned under partnership and franchising schemes to meet low-emission requirements. I urge the Government to keep that amendment. I will be grateful to the Minister if he addresses that point directly in his closing remarks.
Everybody should have access to a decent bus service. When I was shadow Environment Secretary, I got an email about a young man in Chichester. His parents told me that he had a place to study at Chichester college, but the council had just cut the bus service. They said, “We don’t have a car. What is he supposed to do?” I was really heartbroken. I thought to myself that that was the end for this young man. He was 16 years old and the thing that he wanted to do—to go to college so that he could get on in life—was being denied to him.
Physical mobility through the use of buses is key to social mobility in our lives. If a person cannot move out of their village, they will always stay where they are. We want people to get out of their villages so that they can access towns and cities, and the educational, leisure and shopping opportunities that exist in our neighbourhoods. That is really important for local shops, particularly in this internet age. The Government’s deregulation of buses has been disastrous for cities such as Wakefield. The Bill gives us an opportunity to tackle air pollution and congestion, but without a cross-departmental strategy involving the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government, its impact will be limited.
The Department for Transport’s own figures predict that, by 2040, numbers of bus journeys will have fallen faster than numbers of journeys using any other form of transport. We have to stop that decline. We have to tackle air pollution and carbon emissions. The Bus Services Bill is the first attempt to improve bus services in our country and to give people the opportunities that they deserve. I do hope that Ministers will listen to my Committee’s concerns about air pollution and ensure that we do not miss that opportunity.
I should like to thank Madam Deputy Speaker for allowing me to pop out for 15 minutes to lobby for more funds for my schools. Let us hope it was worth while. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and to get an angle on the environmental impacts of the Bill. It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), and I wish him well with his forthcoming election campaign. I note that other candidates are available.
I do not wish to prolong the Manchester versus London debate, but it was noteworthy that we heard comparisons between London and Manchester during the Transport Committee evidence session on the Bill. I remember one of the partners from KPMG saying that there should not be a tendency to think that what works in London will work well in Manchester, and that there were differences between the two cities, not least the reduced subsidy in London and the lack of congestion charging in Manchester, which I believe Manchester will have to deal with. It was also pointed out that Manchester had a smaller market in that respect. That was an interesting debate, although I do not wish to encourage it to take place again here.
I want to talk about the three forms of organisation that deliver bus services to the country: partnerships, franchising and municipals. In so doing, I also want to welcome the Bill. I hope that it will shake up the system and deliver more innovation and more entrants into the bus market. It struck me and other members of the Committee that the big five bus operators deal with 70% of the market, and that when we asked them to give us examples of where they were competing with each other, as they had told us they did a great deal, they struggled to give any. Anything that shakes them through the system will be no bad thing.
I want to talk first about partnerships. The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) spoke highly of the Nottingham municipal, and I certainly would not wish to take away the awards that that company has won, but I would like to put in a plug for the Brighton & Hove bus company, which provides the service near me. I spent two happy hours in its depot talking to the team. It is a partnership and a private operator, and it has delivered 5% passenger growth year on year since 2003. It has been remarkably successful, working in partnership with its local authority. It already has a ticketing system in which it reimburses a competitor in the region; it already has that shared system. When I talked to members of the team about the benefits of audio-visual provision, they seemed a bit surprised because they already have it on their entire fleet. Their fleet is also incredibly green. I should like to advance that company as a good example of a partnership operator working incredibly well. I therefore welcome the extension of local transport authority powers beyond infrastructure and towards allowing authorities to market bus services and provide information and ticketing concepts. I believe that that will be a good move.
The hon. Gentleman is making a fair point. In my constituency, a smaller operator has been in operation since deregulation. Jim Stones Coaches is renowned for providing an excellent service to the community; it is a very community-focused company. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the big players have often not shown the same levels of responsiveness to their local community and the same levels of innovation, and that they now need to take a long, hard look at themselves and really start to deliver for the public?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Perhaps for too long we have had the same players serving the same routes, and I think that the system needs shaking up. I believe that the Bill will do just that.
I was slightly concerned by attempts in the other place to make the powers that could be brought in through advanced quality partnerships a prescriptive matter. If we make it prescriptive, there is a danger that we will take the innovation out of local transport authorities. Indeed, if no further funds are going to those authorities, telling them how they should operate seems to be contrary to the kind of innovation that we are trying to put in place. Equally, while I welcome the consultation that will be required by local authorities for advanced quality partnerships, there is a danger that this requirement could place too heavy a burden on the authorities, resulting in nothing at all occurring. That certainly applies to consultation of a bus operator’s employees, which made no sense to me from a local authority perspective.
I also welcome the introduction of enhanced partnerships, which are a bit of a halfway house between advanced quality partnerships and franchising. They cover a wider geographic service area but have powers over timetabling and frequency and can set improvement objectives and analyse performance. The drawback in the Bill as it stands is that the introduction of an enhanced partnership requires a sufficient number of bus operators in the scheme not to object. Such a veto may mean that enhanced partnerships are unlikely to occur at all. Perhaps we need more checks and balances for bus operators, rather than giving them the power of veto. If I have misunderstood that, I would welcome a clarification.
Moving on to franchising, I was struck that the powers are limited to mayoral combined authorities, but it was noted somewhere in the policy documentation that they were deemed to be sufficiently democratically accountable. That may be a concern for my constituents in East Sussex, who are going to the polls in May and would hope that the council is democratically accountable. However, I take the point that our current system of county councils and district councils does not have the same clarity of power making and accountability as a mayoral combined authority.
Torbay has a unitary authority and responsibility for transport partly lies with Devon County Council and partly with Plymouth City Council. Does my hon. Friend agree that combined authorities normally bring together a main urban area with its rural surroundings in a democratically accountable body?
I agree. There is some power in the argument for more unitary authorities and for legislative incentives to encourage authorities to get together to form a unitary authority. In a way, the Bill may provide that incentive, because I note that Cornwall Council has automatic franchising powers should it wish to use them, but it does not have a directly elected mayor because it is a unitary authority. That may be an incentive for other local authorities to combine. In what is a bit of a sword of Damocles argument, Cornwall is not actually going to go down the franchising route, but we heard evidence from Cornwall Council and the feeling was that just having that power perhaps got the council a better deal through a partnership and that it is happy to persevere for the time being.
While the Bill would allow the Secretary of State to grant franchising powers to authorities that are not mayoral combined authorities, I note that four factors must be met before that can occur. Cornwall might say that it could meet them, but I can understand the concern that the power will go no further than authorities that have an elected mayor. The Lords sought to widen franchising to all authorities that want it, but I note that no quality contract schemes have been put in place since 2000. Some areas has attempted to do so but have struggled—Tyne and Wear is a recent example—but the very fact that none has made it leads me to suggest that we are in danger of asking for wider franchising powers for authorities that would not want to take them up. Franchising can also be high risk for local transport authorities due to negotiating powers and back-office requirements. I certainly hope that we do not end up with the bigger players taking advantage of better lawyers and accountants to give them better terms, with town halls suffering as a result.
Turning to municipals, I note that proposed new section 123O under clause 4 states that LTAs can be an operator of last resort when a service provider ceases to deliver a service for the remainder of its contract. In that sense, the direction of travel is to allow LTAs to step in, yet the Bill prohibits municipals at the same time. Part of me feels that, when we consider devolution and localism, a closer look at what municipals can do would be welcome. That said, I am conscious that local authorities should be enablers, rather than providers, and that municipals should perhaps be more of a last resort.
Can the hon. Gentleman see that, as a fall-back option, it would help a combined authority that is going through the process of franchising? Having an operator of last resort would focus the minds of those bidding for a tender, would it not? It would strengthen the negotiating hand of the public sector over the private sector. For that reason alone, does he see the benefit of that option? Without necessarily wanting to use it, the existence of the option would improve the negotiating position of the public sector.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, as the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), will recall, my preference was for a hierarchy that starts with all authorities being required to go down the partnership route. If that route does not succeed, authorities would then move to bringing in franchising. If that does not succeed, municipals would be there as a last resort.
I have spoken about how Cornwall is delivering a good partnership and how its sword of Damocles is therefore not required. Having made that point, it would be difficult for me to contradict the right hon. Gentleman, even though I am sure his suggestion will not always find favour with Conservative Members. I am alive to the fact that, in the other place, Lord Ahmad talked about keeping the eight remaining municipal providers and wanting to see them continue to thrive. He said that it is perhaps an area for discussion and further debate, which is what we have just had.
Finally, I will address some of the Bill’s other provisions and some of the amendments made in the other place. As the Select Committee report mentions, new powers for partnerships to control moving traffic offences, as currently exist in London, are well worth considering. I also take the point about compulsory concessionary travel schemes for 16 to 19-year-olds. I am not sure where Opposition Front Benchers got to with their policy but, in all fairness, given that we require young people to stay at school or in some form of training to the age of 18 and that over-65s are able to get a free concessionary bus pass without means-testing, such a policy would support our young people, if funding were available. The Select Committee heard yesterday that young people facing crippling insurance costs are unable to drive and are therefore unable to get around.
I also warmly welcome the move to get open data into the system. Open data are vital for getting new entrants into the market, opening it beyond the big five. There has been talk of turning bus routes into assets of community value, in the same way that pubs can be. If open data are in place, with any bus company having the ability to apply for a route, perhaps there is no need to keep the notice period open for six months because the information will already be there. I also welcome the improved ticketing schemes. Having audio-visual media on all buses is hugely welcome and is a good example of how the Government have taken a lobbying proposal one stage further to deliver an enhanced deal.
Overall, I absolutely welcome the Bill, which will shake up the industry. I hope some of my suggestions will also be thrown into the mix. I wish the Bill well in its passage.
Second Reading provides a welcome opportunity to discuss the pressing need for changes to bus services in England. Not long after I was first elected in 2010, I met a group of local campaigners who were lobbying a bus company to think again about cuts to a route that would have made it difficult for their children to get to school. Many more changes have followed since, with many further cuts to services. I have championed the campaign and cause ever since those local people first raised it with me.
Change is desperately needed in England’s bus services. Deregulation has been an unmitigated disaster, particularly for people who live in constituencies such as mine where buses are the only option. It is now more than 30 years since the deregulation of the bus industry outside London, which came with the promise that competition would provide greater efficiency, lower fares and, above all, greater passenger numbers. On every one of those measures, deregulation has failed: bus services have become less competitive, less efficient, more expensive and less convenient for the people I represent. Instead of allowing operators the freedom to provide the services that customers want, deregulation has given operators the freedom to do whatever they think is necessary to maximise their profits. Instead of driving competition, as we were promised, it has allowed operators to carve up regions such as the north-east and run local networks as their own private monopolies—that is a strange form of competition indeed.
Across Wearside, deregulation has also enabled operators to cut or needlessly change routes deemed not profitable enough—it is not that they are not profitable, just that they are not making enough money—leaving whole areas without a service. Despite that, operators continue to receive significant taxpayer subsidy, with little to no accountability. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that bus patronage has declined everywhere but London over the past 30 years. The knock-on effect is one of ever-declining services and rising subsidies in a growing number of local communities. That has certainly been the experience in my constituency and many others across the north-east. I therefore welcome the Government’s recognition that we need to change the way buses are run in this country, but this Bill falls far short, and I fail to understand the Secretary of State’s rationale for rejecting the amendments made in the other place on the powers that could be given to local authorities.
As the only part of mainland Britain to be spared the disasters of deregulation in the 1980s, in London taxpayer subsidies are used to maintain and improve services in the public interest. Instead of having a network of cosy monopolies, as we have in the north-east, bus operators in London must enter a competitive tendering system that is kept under continuous review by Transport for London, which controls fares and plans the network. Companies that fail to provide a good service are replaced by others that can do a better job—that is as it should be. Thanks to that system of competitive franchising, Londoners today have access to an extensive bus network that can take them all across the capital. Although I of course recognise that as the capital city London provides different and unique opportunities to operators, there are lessons we can and should take for how we run our buses across the rest of the country, too. Bus services in London are fully integrated with the rest of the capital’s public transport network, and Oyster smart ticketing and contactless payments are a standard requirement. Thanks to the Mayor of London’s new hopper fare, Londoners can travel on a second bus for free within one hour of touching in on the first. I look on with envy at the kind of modest change we can make that would make a real difference to the people I represent—if only we were given the powers to make it possible.
The issue of value for money for the taxpayer is important, because buses in London achieve far better returns than buses in any other part of the country, with decreasing levels of subsidy and less subsidy than there is in many metropolitan areas. Let us compare that with the situation in which we find ourselves in the north-east, where we have zero integration of routes and fares; limited use of smart ticketing and new technology; confusing and extortionate pricing structures; ever-changing and inconvenient timetables; routes chopped and changed all the time; older people unable to get to hospital; and young people unable to get to college. I could go on and on with that list. That is why I supported efforts by Nexus and the North East Combined Authority to use existing legislation to re-regulate bus services through the introduction of a quality contract scheme in Tyne and Wear. Many Members have rightly talked about the experience we had in Tyne and Wear. It was a source of real disappointment that we were not able to make that change and that that scheme was rejected. That was a mistake, but none the less it was the decision that was taken. As others have said, that legislation was, unfortunately, flawed in some respects and it was overly complicated, but of course we do not yet know whether Ministers could set that right and allow the north-east the power to introduce that kind of scheme in future. I think we made the case during that process. The issues raised by the quality contract scheme board were not ones that denied the fact that the north-east faced big challenges and needed to address the bus market, and I hope that Ministers will now look carefully at the case the north-east can make for taking those powers back.
I welcome the fact that this Bill is a limited acknowledgment by the Government of what many of us have been arguing for years: that the current system of bus service provision in England is not fit for purpose. For reasons that are unclear to me, the Government intend to press ahead in overturning the amendments that would allow change in places such as the north-east. I appreciate that we have heard much about a two-step process and the need for a compelling case to be made, but I think the north-east can make that case. I would, however, appreciate greater clarity from the Minister as to where that bar will be set. Will it be set at such a level as to prevent that from happening, or can we be assured that there will be a genuine process to allow areas such as the north-east to demonstrate the potential benefits to the local economy and travelling public from taking on the franchising model again? I hope the Minister can say more about that when he responds, and I look forward to the opportunity to discuss the matter with him further when the Bill is in Committee.
The north-east has a strong case that franchising makes sense for the region and will benefit passengers. If the Government are really serious about creating a competitive market for local bus services throughout England and stimulating growth in areas such as the north-east, they have nothing to fear from granting franchising powers to areas such as mine. If the north-east is to fulfil its economic potential and to realise the potential of the great talent, businesses and people we have, we need a Government who will give us the powers to make that happen so that we can support businesses, jobs and growth. Transport is central to that. Transport connections in the north-east are poor and hold back our local economy and our businesses. The Bill provides us with a rare opportunity to reform a broken bus market and put the interests of passengers ahead of profits. I urge Ministers to consider the north-east’s strong case and give us the powers we need to grow our economy.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson); I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that we dressed identically today by accident—it was not so that we could fill in as each other’s body doubles. I intend to speak briefly to lay out my concerns, and to touch on an amendment that my colleagues and I hope to table at a later stage, which I hope the Minister will take into account in his response.
In Sheffield, as in many metropolitan areas, deregulation was supposed to herald competition, but instead, as we have heard, that competition resulted in false monopolies and provoked a disaster in bus services throughout the country. We have heard lots of Members reminisce about the difference in performance before deregulation; I am afraid I cannot join in as deregulation happened two years before I was born. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to benefit from the improvements that the Bill heralds.
The past 30 years have seen a decline in passenger numbers, a decline in routes that has affected some of the most hard-to-reach areas, and a rise in prices. In metropolitan areas, including Sheffield, prices have risen by 75% since 2005, which is unaffordable and unacceptable. Bus changes introduced in South Yorkshire last year have seriously blighted the lives of some of my most vulnerable constituents, cutting off an entire estate in Arbourthorne, an area with particularly low car-ownership levels; reducing services to areas with exceptionally high numbers of older people; scrapping entirely the route to the Northern general hospital; and cutting off the Chancet Wood and Abbey Brook areas from nearby Woodseats, where the nearest shops, dentists, doctors and other services are.
When the changes were made, the public consultation was woeful. It was conducted practically in secret over a few weeks in the summer, and the considerable evidence presented to demonstrate demand and needs has been all but dismissed by First and Stagecoach. Sheffield City Council has unfairly taken the blame: the changes cannot be separated from the unprecedented cuts to local authority funding, because the amount of money available for supported services has been shrinking.
Franchising is clearly desirable to ensure that all areas are adequately covered. That is preferable to the current situation, in which certain routes—that is, those from densely populated residential districts to central hubs and back—are well served at peak times, while rural and sparsely populated areas are left out. In short, my constituents have been ill served by deregulation. For Sheffield, where well over a third of the population does not own a car, that really matters.
The demand should be there, but it is being stifled by a strategy that could be said to be managed decline, with the creaming off of the profitable routes and abandonment of the rest. We have heard time and again that in London, which avoided deregulation, patronage has doubled, mileage has increased, and fares have risen at a lower rate than in the city regions. The Lords amendments to overturn the nonsensical, ideological decision to bar metropolitan authorities from forming new municipal bus companies were very welcome. I repeat the calls made by many Members today for the Government to keep those changes.
Sheffield’s fractured bus service needs a workable, region-wide and comprehensive approach, not more dogma, which was wrong in the ’80s and is wrong now. I very much welcome the proposals in the Bill, but would like to see them rolled out to everywhere in the UK, not just those places that will benefit from metropolitan mayors.
I wholeheartedly support the provisions to increase transparency by making use of open data. The Bill includes powers to make regulations on the release and format of open data on routes, timetables, punctuality and fares. The other place scrutinised this in detail, and its Members were concerned about the burden it could impose on transport companies. However, wherever open data has been introduced, it has been demonstrated to reduce the burden on authorities and, crucially, to empower passengers and passenger groups to hold bus companies to account—something that has been sorely lacking in recent times.
Open data as infrastructure was conspicuous by its absence in the Government’s digital strategy today. The format of that open data is crucial. I urge the Minister to look at Ofcom’s work on broadband speeds to find a perfect example of how complex data can be distilled and presented in a way that enables passengers to hold operators to account. That can only work if the format is easily understandable and presentable. I would welcome a clear indication from the Minister on that.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport released its digital strategy today. Regrettably, it is a document that is short on ambition for our digital infrastructure, leaving 400,000 small and medium-sized businesses without superfast broadband, and vast swathes of our rural communities ill connected. However, the ambition of ensuring access to digital infrastructure for all can be served in unusual ways, including through the provisions of the Bill, so I intend to table an amendment that I hope will improve passenger experiences and the public’s access to free wi-fi. The benefits of public internet access are abundantly clear. Today, we access mobile data on a scale not seen before. Since 4G came into public use, mobile data traffic has increased by 600% to well over 70 million gigabytes. We are using data on the go to access our emails, to stream TV and radio, and to conduct video conferences. By the end of the month, many have to top up their data and spend yet more money on what should be considered a fourth utility.
Today’s digital strategy states:
“The UK’s digital infrastructure must be able to support this rapid increase in traffic, providing coverage with sufficient capacity to ensure data can flow at the volume, speed and reliability required to meet the demands of modern life.”
But those words are simply meaningless if we do not deliver proper access everywhere.
I urge the Minister to include in franchising agreements as they come up for renewal a commitment by the operators to deliver free wi-fi on buses. It is already in place on trains, and there is no reason that commuters within cities should not share the same benefits as those between cities. I hope the Minister will seriously consider that as the Bill, which will deliver vastly improved services to passengers across the country, passes through the House.
At last, at last—finally, the Bus Services Bill has arrived. We rejoice at its arrival and want to ensure that it does not disappoint. It is a bit like the experience that I expect many of us have had as bus passengers. We wait for a long time at the bus stop, finally spying a bus on the distant horizon, only for our hearts to sink as it approaches and we see the destination sign, because, after all that waiting, the Bus Services Bill is marked, “Franchising for mayors and combined authorities only.” For most of the country, it will be a long wait for better buses if the Government get their way and carry out their threat to reverse the improvements made to the Bill before it arrived here. We will revisit this argument in Committee, but I urge the Minister to consider leaving the Bill in its improved state so that everyone gains.
We have heard excellent contributions from both sides of the House. It is rare that we discuss buses, but we have done the subject justice today. As it happens, we have heard from a glittering array of former shadow Secretaries of State for Transport, with some very fine contributions. I am deeply conscious that almost everyone who has spoken is more experienced in the House than I am, so I listened to their wise counsel and have learned a lot.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), who chairs the Transport Committee, rightly pointed out that it was disappointing that the Bill was not published alongside the vital guidance and secondary legislation. I should say in passing that I pay tribute to the officials who have worked very hard on the Bill. Obviously, an 18-month wait gives more scope for more work, so we have some sympathy, but the lengthy draft guidance did come rather late, which has made it harder for everyone to scrutinise it sufficiently closely.
My hon. Friend and her Committee also noted that the language used in the draft guidance is rather vague in a number of areas. We have heard the phrase “compelling case” mentioned a number of times today, but it is too vague. There should be no room for ambiguity or subjectivity in such important guidance, which is supposed to outline how the powers in the Bill will be put into practice. I hope the Minister, in his response, can give some clarification on those points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) gave us an important historical account of how the Bill came about. He rightly reminded us that, although there was no golden age, things were very different 30 or 40 years ago, and people could actually get around. He was also the first to rightly query the barrier the Government are sett