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Bus Services

Volume 641: debated on Thursday 24 May 2018

14. What steps his Department is taking to improve the provision of bus services throughout the country. (905559)

The bus market outside London is deregulated, and decisions regarding service provision are primarily a commercial matter for bus operators. Decisions on subsidised bus services are a matter for individual English local authorities, in the light of their own spending priorities. The Government paid out some £250 million last year to support bus services in England through the bus subsidy operators grant. The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced new powers for local authorities and operators to work together to improve local bus services and increase passenger numbers.

Arriva has cut the bus service in Hartburn on which my constituents rely, replacing a doorstep service with what is now a 20-minute walk for older people. I have written to the Tees Valley combined authority about it, but what is the Government’s position on communities that are isolated by public transport cuts?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point, but local authorities are responsible for providing local bus services, and we expect them to work with local operators, Members of Parliament and local communities to do that. Of the £250 million grant that I mentioned earlier, £40 million is paid directly to local authorities to improve bus services in their areas, including the service to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I believe that the Department paid £88,000 last year to Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, which I am sure he will welcome.

Over the past four years, Greater Manchester has lost 8 million miles of bus routes, largely owing to the chronic underfunding of local government. Councils are forced to freeze funds, while costs rocket. Does the Minister accept that unless local government funding is increased, mayors and transport authorities will not be able to use the new powers in the Bus Services Act to full effect?

That is an interesting question. The Government have provided plenty of support for bus services in Manchester—[Interruption.] I will continue, Mr Speaker.

It happened because I was about to mention two very important packages of funding.

The Department contributed just over £32 million towards the £43.2 million Manchester cross city bus package, which was completed in 2017. Now we need another little beat of the drum, because there is another huge sum coming up. The Greater Manchester combined authority received a guaranteed allocation of £243 million from the £1.7 billion transforming cities fund to improve public transport. If the hon. Gentleman is still not satisfied, I suggest that he talk to the Mayor.

I can only imagine that it was a noise of approval. Who knows? It may be a divisible proposition, but there we go.

One very important aspect of bus services is the role played by community services, particularly in rural areas. There is great concern about the consultation that the Department are currently undertaking. When can we expect some final announcements?

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), is overseeing the consultation, and he will make an announcement before the summer. The Department understands the importance of community transport services, which not only tackle isolation but enable people who would not otherwise have access to transport to keep appointments. I understand their importance particularly well, because I represent a rural constituency. The Department is very concerned about the issue, and we will do what we can to help.

For the first time in decades, the people of Cornwall are enjoying brand-new buses on our roads. They offer facilities that people used to think were available only in big cities, such as contactless payment, on-board wi-fi and charging points, and they have been delivered thanks to a partnership between First Kernow, the operator, and Cornwall Council. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the new buses; would she like to come to Cornwall to see them; and does she agree that their delivery demonstrates what can be done, even in rural communities, when local authorities use the powers available to them and work with the private sector?

I welcome the invitation to Cornwall—my summer holiday seems to have been sorted out—and I welcome the new First Kernow buses. I also welcome the fact that the local authority in my hon. Friend’s constituency has worked with the private operator and with the Member of Parliament. That shows that if people and organisations work together, they can put bus services together, even in rural communities.

Since 2010, bus budgets have been slashed by a third and over 2,500 routes have been withdrawn entirely. The Government recognise that franchising boosts patronage and improves services, which is why franchising was extended to the metro mayoralties. Why then in the midst of a bus crisis is the Minister refusing these same powers to councils across the rest of the country?

Packages for buses are at an all-time high, and I would ask why the mayors who already have the powers have not taken them up. The policy at the moment applies to London and the Mayors of Manchester and Liverpool, so I suggest the hon. Gentleman ask his own Labour Mayor of London why he has not taken these powers up.