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Bus Services (Consultation)

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2023

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require consultation of bus users before changes are made to bus services; and for connected purposes.

Imagine a hard-working member of the public, perhaps working night shifts, whose only means of getting to work is by bus. Night after night, they wait in the dark, sometimes in the cold and the rain—in cold weather—simply wanting to get to work, and through no fault of their own, they find out that the bus they need to get to work on time has been changed. That gives them an impossible choice of being late to work, arriving impossibly early or, even worse, finding it near impossible to get to work at all.

Imagine a pensioner living alone at home for whom the bus is a lifeline to visit friends and family, and to attend doctor’s and hospital appointments. For them, the bus is their transport to living a full life, not just for travelling. However, when the local bus timetable changes—skipping the nearby bus stops, which means they can no longer access buses—suddenly, through no fault of their own, they find themselves cut off from the real world and their support network.

Behind every bus timetable change, there will be passengers who just want to live their lives and individuals who are reliant on a service about which they have little or no say. I am sure we would all agree that buses are an important part of all of our communities. In fact, buses are used for twice as many journeys as trains, and from thousands more stopping places across the country. According to the national annual bus statistics 2022, the number of local bus passenger journeys in England alone was 2.8 billion in 2021-22.

Taking the bus instead of a car twice each month would reduce emissions by 15.8 million tonnes of CO2 by 2050, according to the Campaign for Better Transport, so it is good for the environment, too. I read a statistic recently—I think it was on the NHS England website—that a survey of NHS trusts has shown that about 7.8 million appointments a year, or about 650,000 a month, are missed by people citing transport issues, and I am sure that some of those are related to buses.

Buses are without a doubt the most used form of public transport. They carry millions of people each year, and are a vital public transport link for individuals, the economy, people’s health and the environment. It is hard to believe that, despite their importance, there is no official requirement to directly engage or consult with passengers of a bus service when its timetables are being considered for change. By bus passengers, I mean the people who use the actual bus: those who get on it every day to get to work, to get to appointments, to see their friends and to see their family. People are more than just numbers. They have hospital appointments, they have jobs to go to and they have lives to live, yet they do not currently need to be asked about the services they use.

There are legal requirements for official organisations to be asked. For example, in England bus operators are required to give a statutory notice period of 70 days for registrations, variations and cancellations of community bus services, which is made up of 28 days’ notice to the local authority and 42 days’ notice to the traffic commissioner. Many do consult and reach out to passengers, but they do not have to, and there is no legal requirement for bus operators to inform passengers of the changes until the application to cancel registration has been processed. This Bill seeks to address this giant pothole of an oversight and give bus passengers a voice in the process.

Before I go into the proposal, I should clarify that I really welcome the work of the Government to support buses. I see the Minister for buses—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden)—on the Front Bench, and I appreciate the time he has spent meeting me to discuss this issue. The national Bus Back Better strategy of 2021 aims to address the long-term decline in bus services and to create a bus network fit for the future. As I understand it, the strategy has been backed by £3 billion, with £1.4 billion have been allocated already. My own county of Hertfordshire has received £29.7 million for the bus service improvement plan.

There is much more that I could say about the fantastic work the Government are doing to invest in buses and make sure that the network is fit for the future. While it is clear that the investment and the national strategy are there, my proposal is simply to ensure that the users of those buses, who rely on the vital services that will be supported by this fantastic Government’s spend, are part of the decision-making journey.

My proposal is a very simple one. It is to implement a legal requirement or guidance for all companies—commercial or public—that provide a public bus service to ensure that users of the bus service are given an opportunity to feed into a consultation before services are changed or cancelled. If a service is due to be changed or cancelled, companies must ensure that every effort is made to inform the impacted bus users through signage. Ideally, that will be on the bus itself, as well as at bus stops and shelters, but it will also be through the usual online channels of community engagement.

I want to counter some criticism of the proposal that I have received due to a lack of understanding of my request. I am not proposing that, if a bus service has a handful of passengers and is simply not viable at all, even with financial support, the bus passengers should somehow be able to stop the timetable changing. If that were the proposal, I think it would be a fair criticism, but I am not saying that. I am simply asking that the voice of passengers are heard in the process and are properly considered as part of the decision-making process.

My experience of bus passengers, many of whom I have met in my Watford constituency as part of outreach and bus community engagement, is that they are pragmatic and realistic about the challenges. They often have very smart and practical ideas and solutions for solving issues with timetables, but they often feel that they are just numbers on a spreadsheet in an office and are never asked until it is too late. Those paying customers—and they are paying customers—are using a service that they rely on, and I simply want to give them a voice in the process. They should not have decisions imposed on them without being aware that they are coming and without being able to have a say, and they should not just be told after the fact. As much as we would like to believe that when timetables are changed, everyone knows instantly, that is often not the case, so people often turn up in the hope that their bus is going to come, and it may not arrive because the timetable has changed. This proposal would help to address that.

I should say that the Bill feels quite personal to me. I confess that I did not properly learn to drive until my late 20s. Although I am proud to live in my constituency of Watford—I have lived there since I was elected, and I have been a resident of Hertfordshire for over 20 years—I grew up in the west midlands. For many years I worked at Birmingham airport and was reliant on buses to get to work, sometimes for 6 am shifts to be a cleaner, and sometimes at 10 pm to do night shifts patrolling car parks—I wasn’t that threatening, I should say—and often doing 12-hour shifts outside of the usual nine-to-five. I have been the person waiting at a bus stop in the dark, praying that the bus will arrive soon so that I do not get into trouble for being late. I have been the person hoping that the timetable does not change and make it impossible for me to earn some money.

I know what it is like to be reliant on public transport, and I also know how wonderful it can be. I know that it can transform lives. Buses can transport us to live our lives, and they can be a lifeline for hardworking people to meet friends and family, and to get to their jobs. Buses are something special, and I know the Government are doing all they can to protect them as part of our communities, protect our environment and ensure that patients get to their appointments on time. Buses are needed to ensure that hardworking British people can get to work, which they do on a daily basis.

In conclusion, I am asking colleagues across the House to support the Bill and not to ring the Division bell. I am asking the Government to get on board with the Bill and issue clearer guidance, so that bus passengers across the country are part of the journey when timetable changes are decided on.

This would normally be the opportunity for somebody to oppose Bill, but I have been given no notification that anybody wishes to do so, and I see nobody wishing to do so.

Question put and agreed to.


That Dean Russell, Jack Brereton, Marco Longhi, Jason McCartney, Elliot Colburn, Andy Carter, Andrew Jones, Dr Lisa Cameron, Antony Higginbotham, Jim Shannon, Jo Gideon and Jonathan Gullis present the Bill.

Dean Russell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 282).