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Bus Services: Cumbria

Volume 667: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2019

[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered bus services in Cumbria.

It is a huge privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this massively important issue.

To represent a part of Britain as breathtakingly beautiful as ours in south Cumbria—to stand here and speak up for communities in the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and the rest of the south Lakes—is the greatest privilege. It is an awesome place, and it is a huge place—the travel distances are immense. My constituency could contain every single one of the 73 constituencies that make up London, and we would be delighted to have the public transport options of just one of them. In such a vast and sparsely populated area as the south Lakes, public transport links are fundamental, yet so often they fall woefully short of meeting the needs of communities, and the provision that currently exists is coming under continuous and increasing threat.

Cumbria suffers from rural transport poverty. The picture for the whole north-west region is pretty bleak; in the 10 years from 2008 to 2018 the north-west lost 888 separate, distinct services. That figure does not include the services that we have lost in the past year. We in Cumbria have been particularly badly hit, although we had a little good news last week when we won a temporary reprieve for two bus services in the south Lakes. Stagecoach agreed to continue running the 552 between Arnside and Kendal and the 530 between Cartmel, Levens and Kendal, but only for a further three weeks, while we look to put a longer-term solution in place.

In a large rural area with a dispersed population, it is very hard for bus services to be run on a commercial basis. Unlike many urban areas, we cannot rely on the private sector to fill the gaps when funding disappears.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I represent a constituency with many similar challenges to those he is talking about in Cumbria; it is a collection of small towns and villages around a bigger town, near a city. Exactly that point applies—we cannot rely on a commercial service. If we compare the number of cuts, the funding and the services that we have in south Yorkshire and Cumbria with areas such as London, the same model simply does not work. Does he agree that we need more funding, but that local people also need to get the services they deserve?

The hon. Lady’s intervention is very appropriate. I am certain that her communities will have had similar experiences to mine. In the end, investment in public transport is just that. People use the word subsidy, but we are talking about an investment, because the impact on local communities, their economy and the wellbeing of the people who live in them of having these services is worth the money we put into them. It makes more money in terms of the multiplier, so her point is well made and I am grateful to her for making it.

Over the next three weeks we will work together to try to provide a long-term solution to the proposed loss of the 552 and the 530 services. We are grateful to have managed to persuade Stagecoach to give us that stay of execution. As I said, in a large rural area with a dispersed population, it is hard for bus services to be run on a commercial basis and, unlike many urban areas, we cannot rely on the private sector to fill the gaps when funding disappears. In fact, none of the recent services that have been cut has since been taken up by a commercial provider. Once they are gone, they are usually gone for good.

That is why I am so determined that we should find solutions now to protect or to replace the 530 and the 552 before they disappear. With no alternative bus service, those communities can easily become cut off. The average age in my patch is 10 years above the national average, and with a significantly larger older population the need for reliable, regular bus services is all the greater. Many people I know have found themselves alone and disconnected in their later years, the loss of bus services leaving them stranded in places that are utterly beautiful but utterly isolated.

The steady erosion of our bus services comes at the worst time, when other key services are also being reduced. The closure of bank branches in places such as Milnthorpe, Grange, Sedbergh, Ambleside and Coniston in recent times, alongside the closure of shops and post offices, means that people rely even more on public transport to get to the bigger towns and villages, just as those public transport options are disappearing.

That is why we were right to fight to expose Barclays for its dreadful plan to withdraw from the scheme that underpins our post offices, and I am relieved that Barclays has done a U-turn under pressure from many of us. However, it is a reminder that we need to ensure that the banks pay a fair price to the post offices that now fill the spaces that they left behind when they closed their branches and abandoned our communities.

Many in our towns and villages rely on the buses for the basic tasks of daily life—shopping, doctor’s appointments, seeing friends and family or getting to work. The 530 is the only bus route that serves the village of Levens. It is well used by residents to travel into Kendal to shop and to access other vital services. The same applies to the 552; without that service, there is no regular bus connection linking Arnside with the other major communities.

We must also consider the impact of loneliness on physical and mental health. Let us imagine someone who lives in a small village and is unable to drive. If their one transport link is removed, they will find themselves increasingly cut off, unable to travel at the same time as they witness the closure of accessible services in the place they live, with more and more of the homes in their community becoming second homes that are empty for 90% of the year. With few neighbours and fewer local services, the loss of buses constitutes the loss of a vital lifeline and risks leaving many even more isolated and vulnerable.

It is not only the elderly in our communities who are suffering from the reduced bus services. Young people’s access to public transport is also under threat. Free school transport is provided for children up to sixth-form age, but after that the support is not available. It simply makes no sense for the Government to demand that young people carry on in education until they are 18 and then deny them the ability to afford to do so. In places such as Sedbergh and Coniston, it is often impossible to gain access to sixth-form provision at schools or colleges by public transport. There needs to be a statutory responsibility for local education authorities to guarantee home-to-school transport for 16 to 18-year-old students, in the same way that there is for the under-16s. However, there must also be the buses available to deliver that transport in the first place.

Community bus services have filled the gap in some cases, as over the past 30 years Governments of all colours have allowed funding for bus provision to evaporate. To their absolute credit, communities have not just stood by. When the X12 from Coniston to Ulverston was cut, the community stepped up to run the service through fundraising and sheer determination, but it has not been easy. It is a service run in the face of obstacles thrown up by the Department for Transport’s own rules.

Similar stories could be told of the 106 between Kendal and Penrith, and of the 597 Windermere town bus. In Sedbergh the buses are now run by the community-run Western Dales Bus, set up after the cancellation of the 564 left Sedbergh entirely without a connection to the main town of Kendal. I am massively grateful to the volunteers who make those services possible. Indeed, it was a pleasure to be a volunteer driver myself on the Sedbergh bus just a few months ago. It was a great pleasure for the passengers too—at least, they were pleased when the experience was over.

I am proud of our communities and proud of the bus services that so many groups run locally, working tirelessly to provide the best services they can, but it is a battle that comes at a personal cost. Our communities do a phenomenal job, but they should not have to. Urban areas would never settle for that absence of provision, so why should we?

The Cumbria chamber of commerce last year consulted businesses throughout our county for their response to Transport for the North’s strategic review. Inadequate bus services were cited repeatedly for the toll that they were taking on the ability of businesses to recruit staff. Put simply, staff have no means of getting to work. That is a particular issue for the tourism and hospitality industry, in which staff often have to start shifts early or finish late. Lack of buses also prevents businesses in the Lake district from recruiting staff from Barrow, where the employment pool is bigger and unemployment is higher.

Bus services are essential to life for locals. They are also key to Cumbria’s vibrant tourism industry. Cumbria’s Lake district is Britain’s second biggest visitor destination after London—16 million people visited us last year. A high proportion of visitors use their free bus passes while on holiday. That is subsidised by Cumbria County Council through funds provided by the Government, but calculated according to the number of people permanently living in our community. That calculation does not count the reality of the colossal number of tourists using the service. The funding does not even begin to reflect the number of passes used in our area, and local taxpayers end up picking up the shortfall. That is one reason why there is no money to subsidise public bus services in Cumbria; we are basically subsidising public transport for people from richer authorities who do not return the favour.

It strikes me as bizarre, standing in London as I am, that bus services here receive a £722 million annual subsidy, while in Cumbria we receive absolutely nothing. The lack of subsidy has a catastrophic impact on fares, and the extortionate prices make commuting by bus a real challenge, especially for lower-paid workers. How is it right that the 5-mile bus journey from Ambleside to Grasmere—neighbouring communities—costs £4.90, while a journey of equivalent length in London costs £1.50? The Government subsidise buses in a big city where the market is not broken, but they refuse to help in rural areas where the market absolutely is broken.

We are proud that so many people want to visit our area—we love to welcome you to Cumbria. Our tourism industry is invaluable to the economy, but investment in public services is essential to ensuring that tourism does not damage our local communities but helps them to thrive. We want to encourage our visitors to travel sustainably, but 85% of them use the motor car to get to our community and to travel around once they are there. However, we know that with the right interventions and conditions, our visitors will travel sustainably.

Tourism sector deal zone proposals include a focus on sustainability, and public bus transport is a key component of that—so we welcome it—alongside rail, boats, bikes and, of course, walking. Improved bus services could alleviate pressure on the roads that become clogged with the cars of those visiting.

The reality is that we are too late to prevent climate change, but we have perhaps a dozen years left to avoid a major climate catastrophe, with real and appalling human consequences. [Interruption.]

Order. [Interruption.] Order. Could you sit down in the Public Gallery and be quiet, please. Thank you. Mr Farron—[Interruption.] Please, this is a debating chamber; it is not for members of the public to take part in the debate. I am awfully sorry, but thank you for leaving. I am sorry, Mr Farron. Would you like to continue?

Thank you, Dame Cheryl.

The reality, whether we like it or not, is that climate change is happening. The question is whether we can prevent a climate catastrophe that will have huge impacts on human beings in this country and across the globe. Tackling this global disaster will take change in every community and lots of steps that add up to a bigger picture. Public transport is an element of that. In order for there to be success globally, we in the Lakes are determined to act locally. Our community bus services prove that determination.

Two new platforms are being funded and opened at Manchester Piccadilly railway station. That important public investment in infrastructure and the economy through the northern powerhouse is good news, but where is the equivalent for the rural north? The transport spend in the north-west per head of population is still barely half that in London, despite promises made when the northern powerhouse was formed. I will continue to fight the cuts to individual bus services. I will continue to stand with and work with the community to find alternative solutions, just as we are currently doing for Arnside, Levens, Cartmel, Hincaster and Kendal. But let us be honest: that is not good enough. The concept of the northern powerhouse is great, but from Cumbria’s perspective it is not much of a powerhouse and it is not very northern.

If new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly are an investment that will boost the Manchester city region’s economy, a comprehensive bus service in rural Cumbria is the investment to boost the Cumbrian economy, so that is my proposal today: that the Minister should ensure the direct commissioning of a comprehensive, affordable and reliable rural bus network in Cumbria. Will the Minister do that as a key plank of the northern powerhouse?

The bus service running through the south Lakes along the A6 and the A591 is the 555. Running from Lancaster to Keswick, it serves Milnthorpe, Kendal, Staveley, Windermere, Ambleside and Grasmere. It is a reliable service, but extremely expensive. The Kendal to Ambleside journey was recently revealed as the second most expensive route in the country. But if we look at the 555 as the trunk service, what we have seen over the last 30 years has been the slow but steady hacking off of the twigs and the branches. If people do not live in one of the communities along the main south Lakes route, they are more than likely without a bus service. Therefore, what I am asking for is a new commissioned service that will bring back buses to every community and breathe new life into the public transport of the Lakes.

If the Government keep ignoring the plight of rural communities, we will keep fighting for ourselves, rolling up our sleeves, making our own luck and finding solutions against the odds, but we would love it if they would stop ignoring us and instead commission a comprehensive rural bus service to exceed anything that we have seen before, even 35 years ago before deregulation. It will be an investment that revives rural communities, boosts our economy, tackles isolation and connects our towns and villages. I plead with the Minster to be ambitious and to back that proposal.

Before I ask the Minister to respond to the debate, may I thank you, Mr Farron, for bearing with the interruption, and may I place on the record our thanks to the Doorkeeper for dealing on our behalf with that interruption?

Thank you for that, Dame Cheryl. I echo those sentiments and thanks.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate and thank him for raising this issue. He now has a meeting in the diary with my noble Friend Baroness Vere, who leads on buses in the Department. It is an absolute pleasure for me to respond to the debate, partly because, as a rural MP for Mid Norfolk, I share many of the hon. Gentleman’s frustrations at the neglect of rural buses over decades, but also because, as the newly appointed Minister for the future of transport, with responsibility in the Department for a new portfolio and leading on tackling disconnection, decarbonisation, digitalisation and innovation in the private and public transport sectors, I welcome the chance to speak to the issues that he has raised and to highlight some of the things that we are doing to turbocharge the improvement of rural connectivity.

The hon. Gentleman and I, and indeed the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), recognise, as I think all rural MPs do, that public transport and particularly buses in rural areas are essential to connectivity to the workplace, but also for access to public services, particularly healthcare and education. Often in these debates, however, those of us who bemoan the lack of investment and support for rural buses over the years forget that there is still a very substantial service. There are 4 billion bus journeys a year.

Buses remain the most popular form of public transport. Overall, passenger satisfaction remains consistently high, at 85%. I happen to think that the figures are probably higher in urban areas than in some of the rural areas, such as Mid Norfolk and Westmorland and Lonsdale. None the less, I place it on the record that buses are popular and are vital for the connectivity of rural communities and, of course, vital for productivity and general economic wellbeing. For the many people visiting areas such as the Lake district, buses are key.

For the first time in my memory, we have a Prime Minister who has been a Mayor—it is certainly the first time we have had a Prime Minister who makes model buses—and who actually has a passion for public transport, and for places, buses and connectivity, which is all to the good. It is for that reason that I am here today to signal the levelling up of our ambition for rural connectivity. Indeed, the first request that the Prime Minister made to me when he asked me to take on this role was to drive better innovation and faster connectivity, to reach out to those people and places left behind, which is a subject the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and I have both spoken about and written on widely.

That is why I am delighted that in the last few weeks the Government have announced a new £220 million bus deal and committed to a long-term bus strategy. We may say that is long overdue, but it is happening none the less, and I am delighted. Crucially, it will focus on the passengers who rely on the services, rather than the providers, and we will also look at how national and local government, and the private and public sectors, can work together to improve value for money and to get a better deal from not only the additional money, but the money that we have already put in.

Each year the Department for Transport provides £250 million in direct revenue support for bus services in England via the bus service operators grant. Without that, fares would increase and marginal services would disappear in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine. Around £43 million of that grant is paid directly to local authorities, rather than to bus operators, to support socially necessary bus services in their areas that are not commercially viable. The Government recognise the importance of these services, which are essential for rural connectivity and for supplementing the often patchy private provision of, for example, evening or Sunday services, which may not be available.

To improve current bus services or to restore lost services, the Government will pay an extra £30 million of new funding to local authorities to help tackle that problem, in addition to the £1 billion a year currently spent by local authorities on concessionary bus passes. We also committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which benefits around 10 million people, allowing free, off-peak local travel anywhere in England. That concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community, and enables access to facilities in their local area and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends.

In policy making, it is sometimes easy to overlook the essential nature of rural public transport for basic, functioning communities and connectivity. Living in a great city such as London during the week, one sees transport at our fingertips, on demand when we want it. In rural areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s and mine, it is not like that. No one expects it to be identical—we want diversity—but we have to recognise that connectivity is fundamental to a functioning society and economy. That is why we are going further and why we need to be more innovative.

Digitalisation and basic telephony now make a whole range of new services possible. Demand-responsive transport services have been used for some time to replace infrequent traditional services that do not meet a local community’s specific needs, or to get services closer to where people live at a time that is convenient for them—and we are about to go further and faster. We will start to look at places, counties and districts and ask where the people who most need to be moved around actually are, and at what time of day, and whether one bus running infrequently down one road is the right way to do that. Could we use technology to provide a more mixed package of lift-share, car-share, community bus and traditional and modern bus services?

To trial on-demand services in rural and suburban areas, the Government have established a new £20 million fund as part of that bus deal. I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that, as part of that, I will be championing innovation in rural areas. As part of the future mobility zones that I am putting in place, we will look specifically at rural mobility, not just at inner-city and urban mobility, where so much of the innovation has tended to be.

The hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to the many people up and down rural Britain who contribute to community transport and support their communities. I echo that. Approximately 8 million passenger trips take place in rural areas every year, which has a huge impact on encouraging growth and reducing isolation. Community transport operators can access the bus service operators grant to help keep fares down and to run a wider network of services than they could otherwise afford to run. Community transport spend from this grant was substantially above £3 million in 2018-19.

Data, technology and innovation are making possible a whole range of new services, which is why access to digitalisation for rural bus services is a crucial part of what we are doing next. Passengers rightly expect easy access to comprehensive and high-quality information about local bus services. People want to know where they can catch a bus, when it will come, what the fare will be and how they can pay. With more and more people having smartphones in their pockets, it is surely possible for us to run a more digital and demand-responsive service.

The bus data powers in the Bus Services Act 2017 will go further than the partnership provisions, requiring all bus operators of local services in England to open up real-time information on routes, timetables, fares and tickets to passengers from next year. These improvements aim to remove uncertainty in bus journeys, improve journey planning and help passengers secure best-value tickets.

However, we will go further. Notwithstanding potential electoral disruptions, I shortly expect to announce future mobility zones, our flagship project for supporting innovation in future transport. Crucially, I will be looking at rural as well as urban areas. We will look at pilots on demand-responsive services such as those in Lincolnshire and in the Tees Valley, which was announced this week by the Mayor of Teesside, Ben Houchen.

I will close by congratulating the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and genuinely thanking him for securing the debate, which has given us the chance to raise these issues. His points on the northern powerhouse were well made, and I will pass those on to the Minister responsible. The truth is that there is no single solution, and we should not seek some magic bullet. He is right to highlight that rural areas demand a different solution from urban areas. Equally, he is right to highlight that while cities such Manchester—the heartbeat of the northern powerhouse—are growing and investing, we need to look at nearby rural areas, to make sure that we are not creating a two-tier transport system.

The commitment from the Government and myself is clear: to maintain and improve local public transport. We also commit to go further, using this £200 million bus package to improve and support innovation in rural public transport, so that we have a mixed economy that works for the benefit of communities and businesses in rural areas. The Government are 100% committed to that. The Prime Minister is committed to that. I hope that we get a chance after the next election to put that into practice.

Question put and agreed to.