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Bus Priority Measures

Volume 660: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2004

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2.45 p.m.

What proposals they have to help the bus industry, in relation to both traffic flow and cost increases.

My Lords, the Traffic Management Bill will improve traffic management and reduce congestion. This, and the implementation of bus priority measures, will make buses more reliable and cut journey times, reducing operating costs. The 2003 local transport settlement involved a £1.9 billion funding package, much of which will be spent on bus-related and traffic management schemes. Bus service operators grant rose from £222 million in 1998–99 to £341 million in 2003–04, helping to meet cost pressures on the industry.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that helpful reply. As well as the various measures to ease congestion that he described, does he have any definite news for the House on whether other cities are likely to follow the example of London and introduce congestion charging or, indeed, whether they are likely to follow my own authority in Oxford in introducing traffic regulation orders to free up the city centre so that traffic with the highest priority may use it?

My Lords, a number of authorities are looking at successful examples of innovation. They include Oxford, which plays a part with regard to its buses, and Cambridge, although these issues are not restricted to the university towns. The noble Lord is right that it behoves local authorities and transport executives to look closely at current developments which are increasing bus usage in certain cities to a marked extent. Of course, we would like to see that extended.

My Lords, bearing in mind that road congestion seriously delays buses, can my noble friend say what the Government can do to encourage local authorities to free up some roads and introduce more radical solutions in relation to buses? What can they do with regard to local authorities such as Barnett, which seem to be removing bus lanes to give more space for cars? Does that not go against the Government's transport policy?

My Lords, local authorities are responsible to their own electorates for the decisions that they take. However, I think that my noble friend will recognise that a number of local authorities—we have already cited one or two—have adopted imaginative schemes to tackle congestion and to improve, in particular, bus passage. We all recognise that buses are an extremely economic form of transport in our cities and towns. That is why we want to see an increase in the level of bus usage.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what progress is being made on bus lane enforcement with cameras outside London? Over the past three years, my noble friend Lord Bradshaw has received Written Answers suggesting that this will happen "shortly", "soon" and "imminently". Does the Minister have another adverb today?

My Lords, part of the reason for those reservations in the replies at this stage is that the Traffic Management Bill is still before this House. The noble Baroness will recognise that the purpose of the Traffic Management Bill is to improve usage of the highway and to encourage local authorities to adopt exactly the strategies which she advocated; namely, enforcement of road space for priority users. Buses must use bus lanes properly and other road users must stay out of them.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the introduction of the new, long, low, single-storey, continental-style bus has improved or unimproved traffic flow? While he is at it, could he give us any assurances as to the future of our beloved double-decker?

My Lords, our double-decker is safe and beloved and will stay even safer if the bendy buses' propensity to burst into flames continues at the recent level. The noble Lord will recognise that many of us cannot see some devious plot in that by Europe; nor do we think that there should be a referendum on the issue.

My Lords, while putting to one side the comment famously attributed to the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, that anyone over 30 who travels by bus is a failure, does my noble friend agree that it is worth looking at the suggestion contained in the Select Committee report in the other place that there need to be many more bus quality contracts? Also, is there not a case for at least some experiments in local authority regulation of bus services, as it seems to work in London?

My Lords, we want to see an increase in bus quality contracts because there is no doubt that local authorities and the bus companies can reach intelligent decisions on the deployment of buses. In fact, my right honourable friend the Minister, Tony McNulty, who chairs a committee which includes local authority representatives and bus operators, is expressly concerned to develop these concepts in the way that my noble friend advocates.

My Lords, is the Minister therefore considering whether to amend the Transport Act 1985, which deregulated buses, and introduce a franchise system as exists in London? Furthermore, is the noble Lord aware that, unlike his Government, a bendy bus cannot do a U-turn?

My Lords, we do not propose to amend the 1985 Act in quite the way that the noble Viscount suggests. But, of course, even he will recognise that the passage of two decades would lead modern forward-looking governments to look to new measures beyond what that measure provided. I have indicated to the House today that we have a Bill before your Lordships' House—the Traffic Management Bill— which will certainly improve road usage and the priority allocated to buses.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while traffic management measures may well encourage greater use of buses, one of the big problems with bus use is that many people feel insecure, particularly late at night and with the operation of one-man, or one-woman, driver-only buses? Does he think that a more general return of conductors might help in the use of buses and the security of people using them?

My Lords, my noble friend has highlighted an important point. Passengers on buses need to feel secure, particularly late at night. But of course there is a real problem about the introduction of conductors to buses. An important aspect of bus costs at the present time is drivers wages. The addition of conductors would render a number of services somewhat uneconomic. The answer probably lies, therefore, in the development of closed-circuit television, which is being applied to vast numbers of buses—that is so particularly in London—and in prompt communications between the bus driver having trouble and the local police.