I beg to move,
That this House has considered bus services and public transport in north Staffordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that features heavily in my constituency correspondence and is frequently brought up by constituents on the doorstep. North Staffordshire’s public transport is simply not good enough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and I made clear to the Minister’s colleague Baroness Vere recently, bus services are too few, too slow and too infrequent. Indeed, a survey I conducted in a number of communities in my constituency resulted in many hundreds of replies saying just that. We now have communities that lack any service, with elderly and vulnerable people left cut off. The removal of evening and weekend services has also had a major impact on people’s ability to get to work and get around the area.
At the same time, local train services—they are almost non-existent and are often overcrowded—have been under a slow process of decline. Little more than 100 years ago, north Staffordshire had an excellent local rail and tram network. Old maps reveal that we had one of the most comprehensive public transport networks in the country. Since then, local rail lines and local train stations have been lost. The tram network has gone altogether and the bus has risen and fallen as a replacement. It is on bus services that I will focus most of my remarks today.
I have held a debate on train services in north Staffordshire, and there are serious causes for optimism that the situation is improving, with greater capacity and better services promised on the Crewe-Derby North Staffordshire line. Under the new franchise, I am delighted that we will see longer trains, additional services at evenings and weekends and most services extending to Nottingham. I am campaigning to reopen Meir station in my constituency, and there is a definite feeling that for rail, like for Stoke-on-Trent itself, the trajectory is upwards, which will help to reduce the pressure on our congested roads.
There is little such optimism about bus services, and the picture has often just been one of looking at which service will be lost next. That is not to say that everything is terrible with buses in north Staffordshire and, as I will lay out today, it does not mean that there should not be optimism. I understand that the First Potteries No. 18 bus, which runs between Hanley and Leek bus station, now boasts plush new seats, USB charging points and wood-effect flooring. I certainly welcome that. It is long overdue and an example of best practice in the area. It would be good to see such improvements on services that run in my constituency, too. Frankly, it would be good to see any direct service to Leek from my constituency, even just on market days.
The city of Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six historic market towns, as well as numerous other towns and communities across north Staffordshire, each of which needs public transport provision serving its town centres. Hanley, by virtue of being the largest and in the middle of the city, is regarded as the city centre and has the largest bus station, which is also served by National Express coaches in Stoke-on-Trent. While Hanley might be the city centre, it is not the only centre. We have Tunstall, Burslem, Stoke town, Fenton and Longton—all centres in their own right with high streets to support and attractions to be visited. However, Hanley is not served by rail services. Those fell under the Beeching Act, as did those to Burslem and Tunstall, with all three on the old loop line that was immortalised in the literature of Arnold Bennett, but is sadly no longer a physical reality. Fenton lost its station even before Beeching, but Stoke and Longton fortunately still have stations, as do Longport, Kidsgrove and Blythe Bridge. Blythe Bridge is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), just over the boundary from my seat, and the station is used by many of my constituents.
The six historic market towns in Stoke-on-Trent share a north Staffordshire identity that is more than merely geographical with the other historic market towns around the city, including Newcastle-under-Lyme, Kidsgrove, Biddulph, Leek, Cheadle, Stone and Stafford, which are home to many commuters to and from Stoke-on-Trent. Improving and enhancing the public transport links between all those towns is important for our economic growth. Sadly, bus use in the Potteries has declined by more than 10% in the past year alone, with more than 1 million fewer bus passenger journeys in 2018-19 than in 2017-18. The number of journeys fell from 10.4 million in 2017-18 to 9.3 million. Compounding the disappointment is the fact that bus use had at least seemed to have levelled off from the previous decline. The 10.4 million journeys reported in 2017-18 were an increase on the 10.3 million reported in 2016-17. However, at the start of the decade, more than 15 million journeys were recorded.
Since 2010, the relative cost of travelling by car has decreased considerably. Fuel duty has rightly been frozen and even for those who are entitled to free bus passes, the falling marginal cost of driving has disadvantaged bus services in relative terms. Relative price signals have often been compounded by the enhanced marginal utility of driving instead, particularly as cars have improved in personal comfort over the decade relative to buses. Once a decline in bus services begins, it all too often feeds on itself as the relative convenience of just jumping in a car becomes ever more pronounced. Against a backdrop of less frequent bus services, passenger utility is reduced even further. With the reduction in demand comes more cuts in supply.
In north Staffordshire, journey times by bus can be more than double those by car—sometimes easily treble or worse—due to the loss of direct cross-city routes. No doubt that story is familiar to Members in all parts of the country. I have raised the situation in north Staffordshire in particular because, as our local newspaper The Sentinel has highlighted, the decline in the Potteries has been much faster than in England as a whole.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I can confirm that the issue exists across the country. In my constituency of Chelmsford, failing bus services in parts of the city are having a real impact. We have seen some services go. Does he agree that we need a medium to long-term strategy for how we run sustainable buses in our urban areas, as well as in rural areas?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In the Transport Committee—I was a member of it before the election—we discussed the need for a national bus strategy to look into some of these issues and ensure that we are addressing the decline that we have seen across the country in many areas.
I have also secured this debate because of the positive proposals being put forward locally for significant improvements to our public transport infrastructure and services in the years ahead. We certainly cannot go on as we are. Stoke-on-Trent is on the up and our roads are increasingly congested with cars, vans and lorries that are a sign of the city’s improving economic fortunes under the Conservative Government and our local Conservative-led councils across north Staffordshire, including the city council of Stoke-on-Trent. Those cars, vans and lorries are often caught in gridlock at rush hour and are reducing air quality to unacceptable levels in the worst-affected areas. The decline in public transport and the growth of congestion has seen us breach World Health Organisation limits for air quality, with our people forced to breathe hazardous fumes.
How do we turn it around? How do we avoid being a victim of our own success? How do we make buses popular again? I certainly do not want the Treasury to hit motorists in the pocket and make it too expensive to drive. I want instead to improve the quality, reliability, journey times and frequency of buses. I want passengers to rediscover the convenience of travelling by bus or, indeed, by local rail. I am determined to see Meir station reopened in my constituency between Blythe Bridge and Longton on the line to Stoke. Since the station closed, we have seen significant growth in the area in the residential population and in levels of economic activity. Meir also has high levels of deprivation, and reopening the station would open up employment opportunities for people living locally. Much is still there, including a footbridge, so a halt is already highly feasible and the new station is likely to be relatively inexpensive.
Importantly, any new station should link seamlessly with the bus network. We really need to get to grips with seamless transitions between modes of transport in north Staffordshire. Fortunately, there is a plan to achieve that at Stoke station, under the city council’s bid for a transforming cities fund investment.
Securing the full investment for which we are asking would mean significant improvements at Longton station in my constituency. The old Victorian ticket hall would be uncovered from the hoardings that have blighted it for years, and the space repurposed for retail or a café, as well as ticket machines. At the moment, there is nowhere to buy a ticket before getting on the train at Longton, although I am delighted to say that the new rail franchisee has promised to put in machines soon.
The TCF bid for Longton also involves making the platforms accessible by lift, rather than just stairs, as at present—improvements for which we have been pushing for some time, as the Minister is well aware. There would be places of shelter that would exceed the quality of the very basic provisions currently on offer, and Longton rail services would become much better connected with bus services.
Creating a much more effective public transport system across the whole of north Staffordshire is essential. Another key element of the plans is the super-bus proposal, with a vision of an attractive, efficient and affordable bus network forming the core of our local public transport. High-frequency, high-priority bus services would operate on a network of cross-city routes, creating a bus-based urban transport system. End-to-end journey times would be competitive with cars, and travel costs would be attractive.
Just as the loop line defined the interconnectivity of the Potteries towns, so the new seamless bus network and the transport partnership behind it would be a key feature of the city, helping to attract investment into housing and businesses. The proposals are such that the bus network would be as commercially viable as possible, although financially supported where absolutely necessary. In short, the Minister will be pleased to know that full advantage is being taken of the Bus Services Act 2017 to mould a local partnership, and the super-bus proposals focus on three key elements that the Department for Transport wants to see: bus priority measures, improved frequency and a capped daily fare.
I will take each element in turn. First, on bus priority measures, work has been undertaken to identify the main causes of bus journey delays on our local road network, as part of the transforming cities fund bid. Much of the road infrastructure in Stoke-on-Trent has changed little since Victorian times, with a predominantly two-lane network that lacks effective bus priority. Well over a third of delays across the network were found to be caused by severe problems in just 20 locations that would, it is estimated, cost in the region of £50 million to mitigate.
Currently, very few buses run straight through the city centre, meaning that almost all passengers face waiting times for connecting services at the city centre bus station if they want to get from one side of the city to the other. Operators have been reluctant to provide through services, because it is much harder to guarantee their reliability. That, in turn, adds to the congestion at the city centre bus station, with two short-route buses needed to complete what could have been a single-bus through journey.
The required interventions are a mix of low, medium and high-cost schemes, ranging from relatively simple traffic management measures, such as the widening of bus lanes, to more complicated redesigns of junctions to give buses priority. As an initial step, three cross-city routes are being developed, but a number of additional cross-city routes have also been identified to create a truly north Staffordshire-wide network.
The first three routes would all run through the city centre, and they would create the following links: line A, from Kidsgrove in the north-west to Meir in the south-east; line B, from Trentham in the south to Abbey Hulton in the east; and line C, from Keele via Newcastle and Stoke railway station to Biddulph or Kidsgrove, which would provide a direct link between Keele University and Staffordshire University.
The first two of those three lines involve services in my constituency, and, of the four under consideration for future cross-conurbation routes, three would serve my constituency. They include a proposed circle line between Longton, Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme, and a proposed service that would link the city centre and the railway station with Trentham lakes and the World of Wedgwood, which will be important for residents and visitors alike.
A review of traffic management policy will be needed to ensure the smooth flow of buses through town centres, and that can be readily delivered with sufficient will at local government level. It has already been agreed with local bus operators that cross-city services would carry co-ordinated branding and run at regular frequencies.
The second key element is improved frequency. A turn-up-and-go service requires a frequency that does not exceed 10 minutes between buses. Even that frequency would be regarded as poor in London. A 10-minute interval is considered to be one of the downsides of some parts of the Docklands Light Railway, and it certainly would not be tolerated on the London underground. Yet in Stoke-on-Trent a 10-minute frequency is exceptionally good; currently, only four bus services operate at that frequency. The frequency of other services is generally 20 or 30 minutes.
Introducing all the proposed cross-city lines with a weekday daytime frequency of at most 10 minutes would cost some £4.8 million per annum. There would be a further capital cost of £1 million for purchasing additional vehicles. It is important to note that in certain important corridors in the city, such as between the railway station and the city centre, frequencies would be much closer to five minutes than to 10 minutes, with the exception of early mornings, night-times and Sundays.
I reiterate that bus passenger journeys in the Potteries have declined by a third in the last decade. Bus operators could have done things to lessen that decline—in customer service, promotions and the onboard experience—but they are far from solely responsible for it. The operators have identified congestion as the single biggest hindrance to providing efficient public transport as an alternative to cars. That means that congestion, which should inspire people to travel by public transport to avoid traffic jams, is feeding itself by making bus journeys unfeasible and keeping people in their cars, or even forcing people to use them.
There are two main bus service operators in north Staffordshire: First Potteries and D&G. First Potteries is the bigger of the two, with D&G often filling the gaps that First Potteries has left or vacated. Very sadly indeed, a recent and welcome attempt by D&G to save the No. 12 and 12A bus services removed by First Potteries in my constituency has not worked out.
It is deeply disappointing to me and, more importantly, to the people of the Saxonfields and Parkhall areas that commercial services there are said to be impossible to provide. It is a sign of how important it is to get our bus network right, our passenger numbers up and financial sustainability sorted.
There are other, smaller operators, which run a limited number of services, mostly using buses smaller than the standard single-decker ones prevalent in the First Potteries and D&G fleets. The current operators run a multi-operator ticket scheme. One such ticket is called Smart, which is focused on Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme, and another is called The Knot—after the Staffordshire knot—covering the whole of Staffordshire. There is also a PlusBus scheme covering the Smart zone.
That brings me on to the third key element: the price cap. The current standard adult fare for one of the most popular tickets, the Smart day ticket, is £5.90, and the proposal is to cap it at £3 per day, resulting in a ceteris paribus revenue loss of £3 million per annum. However, it is, of course, expected that all things will not be equal, and the price cap, together with congestion-busting road traffic management for bus services, should result in a substantial increase in ticket sales.
Indeed, the uplift is expected to be such that the city council has warned that operators will need to be prepared for boarding delays caused by the volume of people wanting to buy the £3 day ticket. That would have been much more of a concern only a year ago, when contactless payment was still far from widespread across north Staffordshire buses. Thankfully, operators have now invested in contactless technology that speeds up the boarding process.
It is further proposed to make PlusBus tickets even more attractive than they are at present by making the PlusBus element entirely free of charge, or at least heavily discounted. That would be particularly useful for promoting seamless travel across public transport modes in the city, and it is backed up by plans to transform Stoke-on-Trent railway station into a multi-modal transport hub, with Station Road restricted to bus traffic. Current take-up of PlusBus is so low that the total cost across three years is estimated to be only £300,000.
What matters is delivery. Stoke-on-Trent City Council is already working with Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to progress proposals to improve air quality through a ministerial direction. Getting traffic moving and promoting public transport are key to the improvements that we must make. The proposals that I have run through could easily incorporate the Potteries becoming the first all-electric bus pilot. With several town centres across the city conurbation, we would provide a lesson in good practice to cities and towns alike. Liaison with bus operators is already strong, but it needs to be strengthened further, particularly for fares management across companies. A project manager and team of engineers for north Staffordshire’s super-bus proposals would cost in the region of £750,000 per annum, or £2.25 million over the three years of development and implementation. It would be well worth it.
In conclusion, Stoke-on-Trent is on the up, but we need to reverse our public transport decline. The investment requested from Government would enable Stoke-on- Trent City Council to work in partnership with bus operators and neighbouring authorities across north Staffordshire to remove the barriers to bus traffic flow. It would also ensure cross-boundary co-operation and incentivise investment in a seamless north Staffordshire public transport network, taking advantage of improving rail services and encouraging further improvements by train operating companies as the shift away from cars takes hold. The current cycle of bus service decline can be reversed, with more frequent, more relevant services on better buses leading to increased patronage, thereby funding further improvements that will encourage still more bus use.
Let me be quite clear: what is envisioned is nothing short of a revolution for road traffic planning in Stoke-on-Trent, with a radical reordering of highway space and junction prioritisation in favour of buses. By removing the worst pinch points and installing bus priority measures, we can improve passengers’ level of confidence that buses will run smoothly and to time. The measures envisaged would mean that timetables could provide for faster services running over longer distances across north Staffordshire. We would once again be able to boast one of the best and most comprehensive public transport networks, just as we did over a century ago. I hope we will receive the Department’s full support, and the Minister’s support today.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for the opportunity to raise the concerns in my constituency. Local buses are a vital lifeline for the people of Stafford and provide a critical link for the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. I recently visited Winchester Court, in Weeping Cross in Stafford, and was dismayed to hear how local residents feel let down by the public transport system. Several elderly ladies explained their plight in great detail: they have to travel by taxi at great expense in order to get to church services, due to the lack of bus services on Sundays. It is a very simple journey for those who can drive, but those who rely on public transport face missing out on important local events. Other residents have raised with me directly the lack of frequent buses into town on busy routes, such as Cannock Road. Lack of access to the local community is leaving people at risk of suffering further problems, such as loneliness, and I am pleased that this Government are working hard to tackle those problems.
A regular and reliable bus service is very important for those of my constituents who live in villages, as those in rural locations rely on public transport to access important services, such as their GP. For example, the 841 bus service goes from Stafford to Hixon, but only on the hour. The last bus back from Stafford to the village is at 5.55 pm, so residents have told me that if they are doing a regular day’s work until 6 pm or would like to attend an evening event in the town, they are unable to do so without their own car. Some of the smaller villages in my constituency, such as Seighford, do not even have a direct bus service into town. That is why the value of rural public transport should not be underestimated.
Staffordshire County Council has managed very well under difficult circumstances, and I appreciate that the council and bus services face a challenging task in deciding which bus routes provide not only the most benefit for the public as a whole, but the best value to operate. Nevertheless, we must strive to provide accessible, affordable and reliable transport for every resident of Stafford: whether young or old, urban or rural, no one should be left behind. It is simply not good enough to leave residents without suitable transport just because running a bus route is not deemed viable.
As I said in my maiden speech,
“I believe that politics is about getting stuff done”.—[Official Report, 13 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 805.]
I would therefore like all parties to consider a middle-of-the-road option and find common ground. There is, in my opinion, an answer to this challenge. In the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), the Moorlands Connect service, run in conjunction with Staffordshire County Council, is already up and running. Rural residents of north Staffordshire can, for a few pounds, use the service to arrange for transport that caters for everyone, from wheelchair users to commuters with bikes, allowing them to get into local towns and villages. With just one simple phone call, residents can visit local community hubs and have access to the vital services they need. That type of dial-a-ride service model is something that we should consider expanding across Staffordshire.
It is also important to recognise the vital role that public transport and, in particular, buses play in reducing the number of car journeys. It is vital that we all play our part in tackling climate change, and I back the Government’s commitment that the UK will reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. I am delighted that the Government are powering ahead with that world-leading agenda by hosting COP 26 in Glasgow later this year. It is therefore a tragedy that my constituents are forced to make so many journeys by car—vital journeys such as travelling to work, doing their weekly food shop or collecting medicine—because they have no other option. That is simply not good enough for rural residents in villages such as the Haywood, Derrington and Brocton. Local residents want to do their bit to tackle climate change without disrupting their daily lives.
The residents of the beautiful county town of Stafford are also concerned about congestion, which has been raised with me time and again when I have knocked on doors across the constituency. The negative impact of unnecessary car journeys on all of my constituents should not be underestimated, from the additional air pollution that is belching out of cars sitting in queues and being inhaled by all of us, to the hours lost every week by people stuck in traffic jams. Those wasted hours are not only reducing productivity across my constituency, but reducing precious family time. People have told me that they miss reading a story to their children before bed. That is time that people do not want to lose stuck in gridlock.
By re-evaluating the public transport offering in Stafford, we have the opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives. These are the sorts of changes we should be making as modern, compassionate Conservatives. Regular and reliable buses are essential services for commuters and local residents in my constituency, so I urge all parties on a local and national level to investigate and expand upon this north Staffordshire initiative, to ensure we provide bespoke and adaptable transport for all of Stafford’s residents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), on having secured this important debate. He is right to say that our public transport in north Staffordshire is simply not good enough.
The market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, which I have the privilege to represent, is not part of Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke-on-Trent has a unitary council, whereas we are administered by our borough council and Staffordshire County Council. However, the market town is very much part of the wider conurbation. We have the A500—or, as the locals call it, the D road—to separate us from the city centre, but many of the same issues that my hon. Friend has raised about bus services in Stoke-on-Trent apply equally to my constituency, and us all working together to press for the improvements we need is clearly the right approach.
On top of the similar issues we face with our bus network in Newcastle, we do not have a railway station of our own. Newcastle-under-Lyme station, which was on the old line to Market Drayton, was closed in 1964 as part of the Beeching axe. I believe that makes us the third-largest town in the country without a railway station of our own. Most of my constituents therefore rely on Stoke-on-Trent station for their connections to the main line rail network, but their having to do so is itself a contributor to the congestion that has been mentioned—particularly on the roads that link Newcastle and Stoke, one of which I will speak about shortly.
A number of my constituents in the northern parts of my constituency—the areas of Bradwell, Porthill and Wolstanton—use Longport station, which my hon. Friend referred to. That station is just on the other side of the D road. If Northern Rail would consider stopping its Stoke to Manchester services at Longport station, or if West Midlands Trains would consider stopping its Crewe to Birmingham, or even its Crewe to London, services there—both already stop at a number of similarly sized stations—that would be a major boon to those constituents, and encourage more use of Longport station.
Turning to buses—the primary topic of this debate—I was struck during the general election campaign by how often the issue of poor service was raised both on the doorstep and in correspondence. A particular concern is that a number of services simply do not run at all when constituents want to use them. For example, the last bus back up to Wolstanton from the town centre leaves at 6.25 pm and the Sunday service has recently been cancelled altogether. That is not the best way to support our Government’s agenda to revitalise our high streets and our town centres, and I fear it leads to a vicious circle. People stop using the buses because they are not sufficiently convenient or reliable, which in turn leads the bus companies to make further cuts to services, all of which leads to some very heavily congested roads in and around Newcastle.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to one road in particular, the A53 between Stoke and Newcastle—Etruria Road, known locally as Basford Bank. That road marks another edge of my constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) is responsible for the other side of the road, which takes people into Newcastle. The traffic jams on that road are legendary and the local newspaper The Sentinel highlighted just the other day its impact on air quality for local residents in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend and neighbour.
Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has been asked to address the poor air quality on Basford Bank. Neither the council nor I believe that a chargeable clean air zone is the right approach, as it will simply shift the congestion and the problem elsewhere. The right way to improve our congestion problems and our air quality issues in north Staffordshire is through improvements to the pinch points on our roads and through cleaner and better public transport.
On pinch points, I welcome the proposed Etruria Valley link road—it is in the pipeline—which will connect my constituency better with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). That link road was secured by our two councils, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent, working together, along with the Department for Transport and the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire local enterprise partnership. That cross-authority co-operation shows that the various local authorities in the area can and will work together to deliver infrastructure investment.
Another pinch point is junction 15 of the M6, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has been campaigning in this House. Following my election, I look forward to joining him. The cramped design of the junction and nearby roundabouts contribute greatly to congestion on the A500 and on Clayton Road, my constituents’ main road out from Newcastle town centre to the south. Fixing that will go some way to addressing the concerns of my residents along Northwood Lane in Westbury Park ward, who have unfortunately experienced their road being used as a rat run because of all the congestion on the other roads.
Fixing our local road network is a major part of delivering better bus services. It will enable them to run to timetable and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has said, to run through from one side of the town to the other. It will facilitate introducing the potentially all-electric super-bus network, as outlined by my hon. Friend. I particularly welcome the proposed line C that would link Keele University in the west of my constituency all the way through to Stoke-on-Trent station and Staffordshire University.
I am wholeheartedly behind the agenda outlined by my hon. Friend for a genuinely radical transformation of public transport across north Staffordshire, particularly in our conurbation. I look forward to working with him, other new colleagues and the Department to deliver on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important and timely debate. It is wonderful to be able to have this debate with all Members from north Staffordshire on this side of the Chamber. It has to be said that that is a first.
My constituents in Staffordshire Moorlands face similar issues to those that have already been described, but we have some additional issues that are down to the rurality of the constituency. It is one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country. A third of the seat by geography is in the Peak District national park. The constituency includes the highest village in the country, Flash, where the local pub, the New Inn, is 1,518 feet above sea level. There are many villages and hamlets in the constituency and only two towns, Leek and Biddulph.
Connectivity between those villages and towns is hampered by the topography of the area. As the name suggests, Staffordshire Moorlands is quite hilly. We do not have the kind of infrastructure that many of my colleagues have. There is no dual carriageway anywhere in the constituency. There is no train station; there is no main line that runs through the constituency. We have a heritage line, but we have no main train line in the constituency. Access to our towns and villages is very important and is a matter that is often raised by my constituents.
As I mentioned, a third of my seat is within the boundaries of the Peak District national park, and tourism is one of our major economic generators. We are home to Alton Towers, which is the most visited tourist attraction outside London. Everybody who goes to Alton Towers arrives by some form of road transport—a few by bus from Stoke-on-Trent station, but the vast majority by private car. The congestion on the roads at opening and closing time is a challenge for people living in the villages of Alton and Farley. I am sure many people in this room have been to Alton Towers and have wondered what exactly is happening, as they come off the dual carriageway of the A50 and go up a nice road past JCB World headquarters at Rocester, and then suddenly find themselves on tiny little windy roads going through villages. That is because Alton Towers is located in the beautiful village of Alton. It is the former home of the Earls of Shrewsbury, and it was designed by Pugin, so it is very reminiscent of where we are today. It is now a major tourist attraction that happens to be located in a very beautiful part of the country, and we therefore have some really specific concerns.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) touched on the A53. Between Leek and Buxton, it is one of the most dangerous roads in the country. It is frequently in the top 10 or 20 roads in the country for fatalities and road traffic accidents.
I have described the situation with rail. Our bus network is woeful. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South talked about the new number 18 bus. It is a great thing to have a wi-fi enabled bus with USB points and everything else—a lovely green bus—but it runs only once an hour. It is not exactly frequent, and we have very few other buses in the constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) pointed out, we have the Moorlands Connect service. It is very good to have that dial-a-ride service, but the fact is that these villages and hamlets are not served by public transport, and that is contributing to rural loneliness and social isolation. It is contributing to people not being able to go and enjoy days out at our fantastic market in Leek and our monthly artisan market in Biddulph. People simply cannot get to these places, because there are no bus routes. A frequency of one bus every 10 minutes would be a dream come true; we are lucky if we have a bus twice a day sometimes.
Bus routes are being cancelled far too often, and there is a point at which somebody has to take responsibility. I have met the bus companies and they explain to me perfectly rationally why they cannot continue running the bus services—there simply is not the money to do it. I sit down with the county council and the city council and they explain to me perfectly rationally that the money is simply not there and they have to prioritise those services that are best value for money. The problem with those two rational bits of behaviour is that they have led to an irrational situation in which we simply do not have buses. Then we have buses, for example, that serve the village of Alton, but they are full of people going to Alton Towers, so nobody in the village of Alton can get on the bus to go where they want to get to, because it is full of tourists visiting Alton Towers.
Will the Minister ensure that some rationality is applied on bus routes overall and that we start looking at the strategy for buses in a holistic way across the whole of north Staffordshire, reflecting the fact that we have these incredibly rural areas that desperately need a way for people to get to the post office and the local market, to see their friends and live the kinds of lives that people in London would just think absolutely normal? They would think anything else unacceptable.
Reference was made to proposals for bus routes to Biddulph. I welcome those proposals, but while they are welcome, somebody needs to look at the road layout in Biddulph, because the redevelopment of the town centre when the new Sainsbury’s supermarket came to town just under 10 years ago means that getting buses round corners is not proving to be all that easy. We have speed humps and other things on the high street that make it very uncomfortable for people, and I hope the Government will examine that.
I will make a final point on buses before I move on to discuss trains. It is about school transport. The Minister will know that I have had meetings with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Baroness Vere on disability-compliant buses in school transport provision. The problem is that a court case last year found that if any child travelling on the buses was a paying passenger, the buses had to be disability compliant; otherwise, they were no longer insured. These are the public service vehicle accessibility regulations, or PSVAR. The issue has been resolved with a temporary fix to exempt buses on which no more than 20% of children are paying passengers. As I have described, a lot of people have to travel a significant distance to get to school, and they do not all qualify for free school transport, for a variety of reasons. On the buses on which the free school transport is run, children who do not qualify for free transport are charged.
The exemption is very welcome. We have had to get a further exemption for buses for faith schools, because the rules around faith schools and free school transport are more complicated, which meant that more of the children on the buses were paying. We have a further exemption for that, and I visited Boydons Coaches in my constituency last week to discuss this issue, but we need a long-term fix. Small operators such as Boydons simply cannot afford to buy a brand new disability-compliant bus. It does not fit with their business model; they need to buy second-hand coaches. They have very smart and nice coaches, but there are no second-hand disability-compliant coaches on the market at the moment. The large coach firms simply did not invest in them at the time they needed to, and I would be very happy to sit down with the Minister and explain the detail of it. It is complicated, but we need a long-term fix so that bus operators can continue in business.
I have said that we do not have a main railway line running through Staffordshire Moorlands, but we do have a line. It was closed during the Beeching era, but it still exists, and many attempts have been made to try to reopen the line. There are a few problems with it. The station in Leek is now a supermarket, so there would need to be investment in a new station. The line unfortunately ends at Longton and does not go on to the main station at Stoke. This is one of the issues facing a city made up of six towns: sometimes the connectivity between those six towns has not been all that good. The line that was closed in the ’60s did not require, at that point, connectivity to the west coast main line, but reinstating a line that did not have connectivity to the west coast main line would be nonsensical. Investment, and probably another platform at Stoke station, would be needed to get a connection and allow the line to work. The line continues from Leek into the countryside and goes as far as Alton, so it could service Alton Towers if it were reinstated.
I want to express a new idea. Instead of thinking, “Well, we have a line. Let’s put some trains on it,” why do we not think about a different form of rail—maybe light rail, or even a tram service? If we could get a quieter electric tram service that operated perhaps as far as Alton Towers, but definitely between Leek and Stoke-on-Trent, it would benefit many of my colleagues’ constituencies. My constituency borders Stoke-on-Trent North, Stoke-on-Trent South and Stoke-on-Trent Central, all of which would benefit from a tram line. I wonder whether we north Staffordshire MPs could put on our thinking caps and work out what a light rail service might look like. We have all seen what a difference the Metrolink has made to Manchester.
My right hon. Friend mentioned that her constituency borders all three Stoke-on-Trent constituencies, as does Newcastle-under-Lyme. The tram line could run to Keele University on the same line that was axed in the Beeching era, and then we would have connectivity all the way through from her constituency to mine.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. With vision, we could make something really exciting happen for the whole of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire: we could see connectivity. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is another constituency neighbour of mine and was unable to attend the debate, but he is also very keen for work to be done to address the bus routes. I am sure we could benefit his constituency, too, with some form of electric tram that is clean and quiet and delivers the connectivity that my constituents would greatly value.
I will finish with two more points on transport that are more general to the area. The first is about HS2, which is not really an issue in my constituency because, as I have said, it is hilly, as the name “Moorlands” suggests. It also means that people do not tend to want to build railway lines through it. However, we need to ensure that connectivity to the west coast main line, Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield station is maintained. We benefit from having two trains an hour from Stoke to London Euston, and one train an hour from Macclesfield. Those are really important services that we need to ensure we keep. It takes an hour and 24 minutes from Stoke-on-Trent station to London Euston, although it may take my constituents another 40 or 50 minutes to get home from Stoke-on-Trent station, because there is no bus service that runs from Stoke-on-Trent station to anywhere other than Hanley bus station, and then they have to change—that is another story. In any work that is done on HS2, I hope we can ensure that connectivity to Stoke-on-Trent is maintained.
My final point is on the M6, which is our nearest motorway, and on the pinch points at junction 15 that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) spoke about. The stretch between junctions 15 and 16 is an issue that needs to be examined. If anybody listens to any travel report at any time of the day, they will almost certainly hear that there are problems on the M6 in Staffordshire around junctions 15 and 16. We cannot widen the motorway at that point, because there are issues with the topography of the area. We cannot make it a smart motorway, because the hard shoulder is not wide enough. When we have smart motorways south from junction 15 and potentially north from junction 16, the stretch between 15 and 16 will just be worse. I ask the Minister to look carefully at what could be done to alleviate the problems, which would benefit all of us in north Staffordshire.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for chairing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute, and I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), on securing it. There is great consensus among all the north Staffordshire and Stafford MPs about some of the issues and how we need to address them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South ably put it, Stoke-on-Trent is today too car-centric and has too few rail and bus services, no trams and scant provision for cycling. Pedestrians, and town centres themselves, are too often treated as an inconvenience to traffic flow across the city. Places that would once have been market squares or bustling high streets now act instead as mere thoroughfares for vehicular traffic trying to get somewhere else. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South pointed out, we are one city but we are made up of six distinct historic market towns.
I have the great honour to represent Stoke town and Hanley, including the main railway station for the city in Stoke and the main bus and coach station for the city in Hanley. Although the city has taken welcome strides to regenerate Hanley as the city centre, my strong opinion is that it has failed for too many years to make the most of either Stoke town or the Trent, both of which are very close to, and should be an easy walk from, the railway station. I know from talking to residents in Stoke town, and its surrounding suburbs of Penkhull, Boothen, Oak Hill, Trent Vale, Hartshill and Basford, that they have been feeling left out. Well, their voices will be heard through me. It is absolutely essential to go ahead with the works to improve the onward journey to Hanley from the east side main exit of Stoke station. However, the west side exit needs equal attention to connect it properly to Stoke town, thereby giving pedestrians the most direct journey possible via Elenora Street, through the exciting development at Spode Works, on to the heritage high street of Church Street and London Road.
Stoke town is separated from Stoke-on-Trent railway station by eight lanes of traffic and a canal, and pedestrian access is a long and unattractive walk round. That barrier must be bridged—literally—if the strategic aim of increasing footfall in Stoke town is to be realised in full. A pedestrian and cycle bridge needs to be built from the station’s west side entrance, across the road and canal to the side of Stoke town that has suffered most from being cut off from the station. I want to see it as an integral part of the city council’s otherwise excellent transforming cities fund bid, which currently indicates minor improvements to the existing pedestrian route. That means that it will still take more than 10 minutes to walk from Stoke railway station to Stoke town centre.
There are concerns about the cost, of course, but if the Minister would come to Stoke and see how and where a new bridge would fit into the wider regeneration of the west side of Stoke station, she would see how important such a bridge was to making every penny of the scheme work. I note that a similar bridge in Barnsley, if a little less ambitious, is costed at between £5 million and £6 million. Such a bridge in Stoke would have a clear view down Elenora Street towards the old Spode Works, which is being transformed into an amazing, accessible cultural destination, with its museum, hotel, café and workshops. It would be deeply disappointing if, after so much had been invested in Stoke station, it still took the people of Stoke more than 10 minutes to walk to it, as planned. To finance a bridge, there may be room for savings from the current transforming cities fund bid. Local concerns have been raised about the proposed canopy, for example, which would look a bit like the roof of Portcullis House. I would greatly value a discussion with the Department about that.
Fundamentally, Stoke town suffers from the fact that its main square, Campbell Place, was reduced to a thoroughfare of four-lane traffic some years ago. Viable public transport alternatives to the car, including buses, are absolutely vital if we are to reverse the 1960s and ’70s road traffic planning, which has done nothing to help the vibrancy of the town as a place to enjoy, linger and spend time.
The River Trent runs from the north of my constituency to the south, and for most of its length one would not know it was there, yet it could be one of the most pleasant pedestrian routes through the city. The Thames path was once a pipe dream, but its reality shows that it was right to dream big. Equally, there is more to be made of the Trent and Mersey Canal, and branches of it, to provide handy walking and cycling routes through the city. Access could be improved in various parts of the city, and more could be done to separate pedestrians and cyclists at certain pinch points, particularly around bridges. We need to see buses stop in convenient places for joining canal and river paths.
I deliberately say that we need to see buses stop, not that we need to see bus stops. On Leek Road in my constituency, there are already bus stops that could serve the Trent Mill nature park along the River Trent at Joiners Square, but they are no longer in service. Ironically, unlike too many of the bus stops in Stoke-on-Trent, those unused bus stops have shelters. Shelters are very important to bus users, particularly when the clouds burst and we get a dose of the rain that keeps Stoke-on-Trent a green and pleasant city. We need more of them.
In order that more people enjoy the greenery of Hanley Park, I fully support the council’s bid to improve the frequency and reliability of connections to Hanley from Stoke-on-Trent station via College Road, which runs alongside Hanley Park and affords great views of it.
I am really excited by the prospect of being a super-bus city. My constituents are the biggest users of buses in the city, and one third of households in Stoke-on-Trent central do not own a car. We need something radical such as the super-bus scheme to remind people how useful and relevant bus services can be in the transport mix. We should make them attractive for the people who forgo an alternative mode, and sustainable for the people who have no choice but to rely on them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, Hanley used to be served by Etruria station, which was completely demolished and excavated beyond trace under the previous Labour Government, even though private rail companies were willing to run trains there. It was supposedly to speed up services down the west coast main line. Etruria served both Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme. It certainly needed clearer pedestrian routes to the city centre, but it has done no good locally for it not to be there at all. Any funding for a study into restoring the station and improving its strategic function in a seamless public transport system would be very welcome indeed.
I accept that much of the lost North Staffordshire Railway network—the Knotty, as it was known—is unlikely ever to be brought back into service. The old line to Newcastle, for example, has been built on. The most likely contender to reopen is the line from Stoke-on-Trent to Leek via Fenton Manor. In my constituency, it could serve stations at some combination of Joiners Square, Bucknall Park, Abbey Hulton and, at somewhere on the boundary with Stoke-on-Trent north, Birches Head Academy. Going north, it would have stations in Stoke-on-Trent north and Staffordshire Moorlands that a good number of my constituents would be able to walk to: Milton and Stockton Brook. The line would end at Leek, where it would meet parts of the North Staffs Railway that are preserved as a heritage railway through the Moorlands countryside. My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) has long supported the scheme, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) favours it too. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has raised it in a previous debate on train services in north Staffordshire, which he referred to earlier.
Having being closed to passenger traffic many decades ago, the line continued to serve as a mineral line until relatively recently. It is mostly overgrown with trees, but the track bed is still there and the route has not been built on, although I understand that there is a legal battle over whether it is a public right of way for walking at the Moorlands end. I will be grateful if the Minister has any update on the contact that the Department has had to find out what the current intentions are on that.
If the Minister is able to accept an invitation to visit the city, I am sure that, between us, we could put together quite a tour of the relevant sites across Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. It would be good to highlight the huge potential for honing the plans in the transforming cities fund bid, and achieving a great deal with the money we are asking for. By getting it right locally, we will have our greatest economic impact nationally.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I draw colleagues’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I want to start by reflecting on some of the points made by Members from Staffordshire, and I will then address the wider national picture with regard to transport, and discuss some potential policy solutions to the problems we all face. I found myself nodding in agreement with the points made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). I represent an urban seat with many of the same problems, and I am aware of the same issues across the country. Our more rural colleagues suffer different sorts of transport problems, but we often face shared issues.
I want to highlight some points and praise Stoke City Council and the wider thrust of the initiatives that the hon. Gentleman describes. From the Opposition’s perspective, many medium to small-sized cities, and indeed great cities, face the challenge of growing congestion. The Victorian infrastructure means that it is impossible to extend the road network. Indeed, why would we want to, given the potential air pollution and congestion problems? Many towns and cities have problems with buses. I recognise that Stoke and the rural area nearby has particular problems, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently.
Rail connectivity needs to be improved across the country. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need to improve the network’s main arteries and branch lines, and to move the emphasis away from motorways and car-dependent development. That is a huge problem across much of England, particularly in densely populated counties such as those in the midlands and central southern England, where I come from.
I commend the desire of the hon. Gentleman’s local council to reduce bus fares and to provide a more rational system via enhanced partnerships. I gently suggest that he and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) talk with colleagues in other urban areas, particularly Reading and Nottingham, which still have municipal bus companies—it is a national model with huge benefits. A number of other authorities follow the model, and I should add that some of them are under the control of political parties other than the Labour party. Low-cost tickets, greater frequency and bus-priority measures are all wise and sensible choices that, when implemented on a bigger scale, will hugely benefit residents across the country.
The right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) articulated the rural issues very well. Market towns and rural areas suffer from a lack of connectivity. I can quite imagine, having been to Alton Towers and the Peak District—it was very enjoyable and absolutely beautiful—the problems faced by residents in those parts of Staffordshire given the lack of connectivity. Local tourism is welcome, but it places pressure on local services, which makes it harder for local people to get to where they need to go.
Conservative Members have made some excellent points. I have great sympathy with the situation in Stoke and Staffordshire. My Labour party colleagues and I understand the pressures in both urban and rural areas around the country, and wish ardently to see the problem addressed.
Now that the Government have been re-elected, I suggest to the Minister that more attention ought to be paid to the wider national problem. Hon. Members are absolutely right to discuss the needs of Stoke and the need for more intervention in the market to provide a better quality service for residents. They are quite right to propose improvements in local bus and rail travel as part of a wider series of improvements, such as the bridge across the main road in Stoke, mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Similar investments in other parts of the country have brought enormous benefits to those communities. In my town of Reading, a new pedestrian and cycling bridge over the River Thames has dramatically enhanced access to our town centre, produced huge benefits in public health and got vehicles off very busy roads.
I ask the Minister to look at what the example of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent tells us about the need for changes to national policy. As with other evidence from around the UK, it clearly suggests the need for a rethink and a recalibration of our transport spending. At the moment, we live in one of the most car-dependent countries in the western world, yet we live on a very congested island. As has been mentioned, our physical infrastructure is limited, and none of us would want to see our beautiful British countryside built over with more road. We need to be careful in how we use our scarce national resources and land.
I absolutely appreciate the good point made about the widening of the M6. There are real limits to motorway widening and changes to the road network for greater efficiency. A greater emphasis on other modes of transport is needed, particularly given the common sense point that one bus could take 30 cars off the road, while one train could take hundreds off the road. Then, drivers who really need to get from A to B by car—perhaps they have a delivery business or must take an unusual route—could use the road space more effectively. That would also produce the huge benefit of tackling pollution.
We need to reshape our policy priorities and place less emphasis on road travel by car and more emphasis on public transport. The Minister is a very thoughtful member of the Government—as is her colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), for whom she is standing in—and is only too familiar with the issue of bus travel because we have often discussed it in the past. I urge her to push for more emphasis on buses, which, as has been said, are the main means of commuting—far more than trains—for most people. Buses provide services to many people without cars and to older people and children who may not have access to the family car.
I hope there will be a wider rethink and a move away from car-dependent development, car-based policy and large investment in new A-roads—which take cars from one congested city centre, such as Stoke, to another and do not solve our problems—and towards a greater emphasis on rail and buses. I will outline further some possible policy solutions that may help.
Members from Staffordshire are absolutely right to highlight local problems, but they are part of a wider national picture caused by the decline of bus services across the UK. In England, there has been a 45% cut in bus services since 2010 because of the reduction in subsidies for some services. The right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands articulated in particular the severe problem in rural areas, which the Government must consider. Suburban areas are also part of the national picture. In my constituency, routes were affected by cuts to subsidies, and I have had to campaign for that subsidy to be maintained as local authorities face great austerity.
The huge rise in the cost of bus travel is also significant, given that car travel has effectively become cheaper because of the reduction in fuel tax. Arguably, central Government are making the wrong choices. As Government Members opposite articulated so well, the net effect of that policy is to create more traffic in congested centres and nearby market towns and to make it harder for people in rural areas to get to those towns. I hope there will be a rethink on the emphasis placed on car travel as opposed to buses.
We should also consider the current challenges for rail travellers. Travel by rail has become more difficult for many. The cost has risen by about 30% in the past few years and there have been notable problems on parts of the network. I fully understand that the Minister is not responsible for that part of the transport network, but I am sure that she and hon. Members will remember the considerable problems with Northern Rail. In my part of the country, the huge disruption on South Western Railway and other services has caused a great deal of difficulty for many residents. As the Government bed in, I hope they will also look at the relative lack of emphasis placed on rail travel, which, as other hon. Members have articulated so well, takes pressure of roads and allows those who have to drive to do so.
As with bus travel, another part of the solution is to take services back into public ownership. It is interesting that the Minister is smiling rather wryly, because the Department may be about to announce renationalisation programmes for two particular companies whose franchises have failed. The whole system is in crisis and, as the Minister knows only too well, that is very expensive. Bringing those franchises back into public ownership could result in considerable savings for the taxpayer. We estimate that about £1 billion would be saved by bringing all rail services back into public ownership. Nevertheless, bringing back even one or two could result in money that could be better used in other ways on the network.
I will highlight potential policy change for bus travel. Government Members have wisely pointed out the benefit of bus travel as a more effective means for residents to get around, and for rural residents to get into, city centres. I urge the Minister to consider giving all local authorities the power to franchise. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South rightly talked about the enhanced partnership scheme that he and his local authority are trying to develop. If he, as a thoughtful Member of Parliament, really wants to achieve the desired service levels with sensitivity to local needs, I urge him to go further and look at the model of franchising. At present, that may only be used in cities with a Mayor. The Minister is nodding thoughtfully. I hope that she and her colleagues will consider allowing all local authorities to franchise bus services. Stoke residents clearly wish to go in the direction of better, more integrated services that are linked to their local needs. Their local authority wants that, too, so perhaps that is how to improve the situation.
As part of the mix, I strongly recommend the municipal model. Towns and cities with municipal bus services still have a far greater level of bus patronage. My home town of Reading—sadly, we are a borough, not a city, but we have a conurbation of 250,000 people, which is not so dissimilar to large cities in the midlands—has a far greater level of bus patronage than other comparable towns and cities. The same is true of Nottingham. We even have night buses in Reading, and the services on one route run every seven minutes. That can happen because the company, though an independent body, is council-owned. It makes a small profit, and its approach is based on the service needs of the local community.
There is a lot to be said for the municipal approach, and I hope that the Minister, who is becoming only too aware of bus services around the country, will look again at it now that she has been brought back into Government. In particular, she should consider the most successful firms and how they have developed and are of benefit to their communities and their wider rural hinterland. In my own area, Reading Buses runs services as far as London in one direction, and to Henley-on-Thames, Newbury and various other towns in the county. Equally, in Nottingham the service has a wide footprint, and many rural residents beyond the city benefit. The municipal model is worth considering.
I also strongly recommend more capital investment in bus priority measures. I can well believe the issues in Stoke city centre described by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. That is a common problem around the country. A lot of evidence shows that, where services have been successful, such measures have been part of the picture.
I will make one more point about rail. I strongly appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern to restore branch lines in the Stoke area, but it is worth considering the emphasis on both branch and mainline services. There has been a great deal of discussion and debate about High Speed 2, but it remains a clearly thought-through programme which, despite some management challenges and cost issues, could stimulate huge economic regeneration for cities around the country, in particular in the midlands and the north.
I thank the Minister for listening patiently to my various points about bus services. I appreciate Members’ desire to improve services in their area, and I urge Ministers to rethink Government policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, in this incredibly collegiate and productive debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing it and giving me the opportunity to provide some answers that will please both Government and Opposition Members.
In this Chamber, we are all agreed that bus services matter. They are the best way for people to travel, being the cleanest and the cheapest, whether for getting to work or for accessing social services. We are all agreed that buses are our most vital form of public transport system. Fundamentally, too, buses tackle a number of environmental issues on which we are now leading.
We must not forget that 4 billion bus journeys already take place each year. I am no longer the Minister with responsibility for buses—I am standing in for that wonderful Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman)—but I am still the accessibility Minister, and people with accessibility issues will always travel on buses first and foremost. We need to ensure that we continue to provide the service. We understand the importance of bus services, not only across the country but obviously in Staffordshire. It is wonderful to speak in a debate where everyone is agreed on how we need to go forward, because that makes solutions a lot simpler for Government to provide.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South raised a couple of issues. The introduction of The Knot is a good example of how services can become far more accessible and sexy, especially encouraging younger people to use buses, because it answers some of their problems. The Knot is a multi-operator ticket giving people the flexibility to use any bus, anytime and anywhere across Staffordshire. It sits alongside the Smart multi-operator ticket, which allows passengers to travel on buses provided by different operators across North Staffordshire with just one ticket. Fundamentally, too, there is contactless payment. Busy people and younger customers especially want to ensure that journeys are as easy as possible, and contactless payment is more efficient. National Express West Midlands says that journeys would be speeded up by 10% were people able to use the card in their pocket.
When I appeared before the Select Committee on Transport a while ago, my hon. Friend was robust in challenging me on bus strategy. However, he and I wanted the same thing, and we have got it—we have a win here. First, we have had the announcement of an ambitious and innovative £220 million bus package and, secondly, we are putting together the first ever national bus strategy, which will revolutionise bus services across England.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) will see that we now have a rationale. She can go back to her council and her councillors to say that we now have a path forward with that £220 million and a national bus strategy, which will review all existing funding. Those packages will transform our bus services, especially looking at on-demand services, which are key in rural areas and something that I have always campaigned for as the MP for a rural constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) also spoke passionately about how we ensure that services fit rural areas with fewer passengers but are just as important.
What everyone has been asking about today of course is the super-bus network. That will decrease fares and develop a comprehensive network of bus priority measures to improve the frequency of buses. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell)—already a powerful champion on behalf of his constituents—nailed his colours to the mast. No doubt he will campaign for public transport in his constituency.
Furthermore, £50 million has already been committed for Britain’s first all-electric bus town—everyone has spoken passionately about the environment here—and an extra £30 million has been committed to bus funding to be paid directly to local authorities to improve existing bus services or restore lost ones. My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands expressed concerns about limited funding, so I hope that she will be able to go back and mention that too. Expressions of interest have been sought for demand-responsive transport, the all-electric bus town and the super-bus pilot.
Access to public transport is incredibly important for people in rural areas, as I mentioned, so we must not forget the £250 million paid directly for bus services in England via the bus service operators’ grant, which helps local authorities to ensure that the buses are running. Also, £43 million of the bus service operators’ grant is paid directly to local authorities to enable them to fund services that might not provide a financial gain for bus companies. There are a few options there. We have heard that the service is mixed, and that passengers are not getting what they want, which is why MPs are present to champion their constituents. To improve existing bus services, we have that extra £30 million for local authorities and we must not forget the £1 billion spent on concessionary bus passes every year.
What will help most Members in the Chamber is a national bus strategy. It is key that the bus strategy both adopts new technology and promotes cleaner air quality, fitting into our decarbonisation strategy. Since 2010, we have set aside more than £250 million to replace and upgrade buses, meaning that we now have more than 7,000 cleaner and better buses on our roads. Most recently, the electric bus launched at Birmingham airport is incredibly quiet and has USB portals. However, that is not as good as the No. 18 bus, which even has wood-effect flooring—I hope to be able to take a journey on that bus in future.
We can go even further. Decarbonisation and tackling congestion were mentioned by both my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. We must drive down congestion to bring greater economic benefits to the villages, towns and cities that they represent. We hope to lead the world, in particular in driving down emissions and by having the first ever all-electric bus town or city, to which we have already made a financial commitment. When we host the 2020 United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, we can use that prime opportunity to talk about how public transport drives our decarbonisation agenda.
Something that is incredibly important for rural transport is demand-responsive transport, which is about journeys that are taken less frequently and might not be economically viable but are just as vital, especially for rural constituencies. This was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford in particular. We are ensuring that funding is available for such transport, so that those services can run for the first few years when they may not be so economical. That is why we have allocated £20 million to demand-responsive transport. I have campaigned for it in my constituency, so if any Member present in the Chamber wishes to talk through how to champion it with their local authority, I am more than happy to do so.
I was asked to be revolutionary, and I hope that I can be towards the end of my speech, but we must remember that we already have a revolutionary Act in place. The Bus Services Act 2017 is crucial in driving down the powers and choices to a local authority. A number of options are already available. The shadow Minister talked about franchising, but there are enhanced partnership options, which are just as valuable in ensuring that buses operate where passengers want them.
On effective partnerships, I was delighted to hear that north Staffordshire has taken full advantage of the Bus Services Act to form a local partnership, but legislation alone is not enough. We need good partnerships between local authorities, parliamentarians and bus operators. It is good to note that every Member is keen to work with other Members, local authorities and bus companies to make that happen. We must not forget the role of bus companies: they must be just as collegiate, open and transparent with local authorities, and provide services in the not-so-profitable areas just as much as in the profitable areas.
Open data is also quite revolutionary. Hon. Members may be surprised to hear that that is not the way the bus services have been run previously, but they need to adopt new technology to ensure that people can jump on a bus without a second thought, and to attract newer, younger passengers, too. Through the bus open data powers in the Act we will go further than before, to open up both routes and timetables early this year and to look at fares data by next year.
Members are keen to ensure that they are doing their bit to secure funding from the transforming cities fund. The Government are investing £2.5 billion to support the development and creation of new and innovative public transport schemes, which will improve journeys and tackle congestion in some of England’s largest cities. Stoke-on-Trent has been shortlisted for an upgrade to its public transport links. The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) was spot on; she put forward a fantastic case. At the Department we welcome the business case put forward by Stoke-on-Trent and supported by hon. Members. It will improve connectivity across the region. I am afraid I cannot say anything more right now, but an announcement on the outcome of the process will be announced in the next few months. The strength of this debate will no doubt be recognised when that decision is made.
I was pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands about alternative forms of mass mobilisation of transport with a low impact that goes beyond buses and trains. I was very keen to hear her proposal to set up a session with fellow Members. I have no doubt that the Department will be keen to hear what they wish to propose, and how that can be taken forward.
Just before I conclude, I want to respond to a few comments made by Members. My right hon. Friend raised the public sector borrowing requirement for school buses, which is something that comes across my desk. Over 98% of buses are fully compliant. I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s anxiety about working with smaller schools and faith schools, but they have had many years of lead time to try to get that right. The temporary exemptions run to the end of July 2020, providing even more time for the sector to become compliant. We must remember that it does not apply if the vehicles have fewer than 22 seats. If my right hon. Friend wishes to meet me or my Department once again—she does so frequently—we can try to explain that a little more. I hope that the new funding that I announce will give her the confidence to go back to her local authority and tell them that new money is on the way. The next time I am at Alton Towers I will pay a bit more attention to the road and the impact that driving with my family has on the village.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who is a great champion for his constituency already, talked about rail, road and buses. The road is a little beyond my remit, but the Department has heard the comments about the road improvements on the A53. It is for the local authority to bring forward proposals. If it requires any support to put the process in place, the Department or I am more than happy to show my hon. Friend, who is a new Member, the ropes.
I must reflect on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, who spoke passionately about the environment. I hope she can relay back to her constituents our commitment to decarbonisation. She mentioned access to Sunday services, the Cannock Road service and loneliness. The bus strategy is embedded into the Government’s loneliness strategy, which I have previously represented across Whitehall Departments. I hope that demand-responsive transport will provide some succour for her constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made a passionate speech about the funds available. Let us hope that there will be positive news. I am not the Minister responsible, but I know that the Minister responsible is very keen to ensure that we are aware of the situation on the ground. I will ensure that the open invitation is relayed to him, and I hope that a visit will be down the line.
I do not know what to say to the shadow Minister, because what he asks for we are delivering. There is over £220 million and a new bus strategy, so maybe a crack of a smile would not go amiss.
I am grateful to the Minister for her pleasant response. I urge her to take heed of the requests to give further powers to local authorities. I am afraid that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) may be disappointed by the outcome of an enhanced partnership, which has not led to improvements elsewhere in the country.
There is always a fly in the ointment. Enhanced partnerships are a positive way forward, but if there is one thing to remind Members and the shadow Minister, it is that services cannot be left to a local authority or the bus operating companies. There must be a collective effort. It was more than obvious from support in the debate that that will take place. I hope that hon. Members will agree that we are moving in the right direction. We are ensuring that public transport is key. The Government are committed to levelling up, making sure that there is equal access to services and employment. That requires good public buses at the heart of all transport, local government and town and cities planning. I look forward to working with hon. Members.
I thank the Minister for her fantastic support for improvements in bus and public transport services across north Staffordshire. I thank all my fellow Staffordshire colleagues for their support in the debate. It is fantastic to hear their perspectives on bus services in their constituencies.
I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I just wanted to make the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has been able to make it for the end of the debate. Although he cannot contribute, he is here and is very keen to show his support for my hon. Friend’s debate.
I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) supporting the debate.
We have heard some valuable contributions, right the way through from rural issues to the challenges we are facing in our urban areas in the city of Stoke-on-Trent and how we can improve them. We are all united across Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire on how we can improve those issues. We want better bus services and public transport in the area, and there is a lot we can do by working with the Department. I am delighted that the Minister is committed to working closely with us to address those issues.
It is essential that we deliver on the transforming cities fund, making sure that we have the full ask of that, so we can deliver on the improvements we need as well as on the super-bus proposals. I think those issues would go a massive way to addressing the challenges we are facing with bus services and public transport in north Staffordshire.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered bus services and public transport in north Staffordshire.