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Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 7 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assessment they have made of the effect of bus partnerships at local level; and how local bus services have changed since the introduction of bus partnerships.

My Lords, the Department for Transport undertook an extensive review of the bus sector in 2006, looking in particular at partnership arrangements around the country. The conclusions were published in our Putting Passengers First policy statement in December 2006. The key finding was that, while partnership arrangements were working effectively in some areas, they were not in others. This led to the legislative proposals contained in the Local Transport Bill, which is currently before Parliament.

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that reply, I declare an interest. Does he agree with me that quality partnerships in towns as diverse as Blackpool, Brighton and York, as well as in many shire counties, have been enormously successful in increasing bus usage? Following on from his reply, does he accept from me that it would be very dangerous to investor confidence in the bus industry to make any major changes in the Local Transport Bill, which will shortly be coming before your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right that we need to balance interests in this area. He is also right to draw attention to the examples of very good practice in partnership. Brighton saw a patronage increase of 15 per cent between 2001 and 2006 and an increase in satisfaction with bus services from 56 per cent to 80 per cent over the same period. There are many other examples. However, as my noble friend will be aware, there are also examples of areas where bus usage is declining. Since 2001, it has gone down by 20 per cent in Tyne and Wear, 8 per cent in West Yorkshire, 6 per cent in Merseyside, 11 per cent in South Yorkshire and 9 per cent in the West Midlands. Therefore, we are alive to the need to put in place arrangements to ensure that bus usership increases in areas where it has not done so in recent years.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on being the subject—in somewhat laudatory terms—of the third leader in the Times today. I hope that the words used about him will also apply to his work in his new portfolio. Congestion is the main enemy of buses. It leads to unreliability and rising costs. Will he say how far the Traffic Management Act 2004 succeeded in its main objectives, which were the avoidance, elimination and reduction of congestion? In the context of the Local Transport Bill to which he has just referred, will the Government send a clear signal that co-operation between bus companies and local authorities is beneficial and will not be subject to action by the competition authorities, except where fares are being fixed?

My Lords, after hubris comes nemesis, so I am not paying too much attention to leading articles in the Times, although it would be good if I were able to produce some of the results in transport that the noble Lord has set out. I suspect that achieving the free flow of buses down bus lanes and the elimination of all forms of congestion is an even tougher job than reforming the school system, but I shall give it what effort and attention I can. The Local Transport Bill seeks to ensure that competition law does not stand unnecessarily in the way of good and effective co-operation at local level. By promoting stronger partnership working, it will also make possible many of the objectives that the noble Lord set out, including more accessible bus stops, new bus lanes and other local arrangements that will facilitate the passage of buses.

My Lords, given the Minister’s previous brief, will he look particularly carefully at the possibility of granting homeless families with young children free bus travel and at how family friendly buses are in enabling pushchairs to be carried on them? Isolation of lone parents has been identified as a major contributory factor to post-natal depression. Given the rates of homelessness, perhaps the Minister would care to think of this matter.

My Lords, the noble Earl makes a good point. Modern standards of bus design ensure the accessibility that he seeks and many local authorities have in place concessionary fare arrangements of the kind that he mentions, which also promote the interests of lone parents and children. However, I very much bear in mind the points that he makes.

My Lords, following on from that question, will my noble friend confirm that the introduction of free travel for senior citizens on buses has been a huge success? Will he in his new role as the lead Minister for railways in his department look at ways in which rail travel can become more affordable for older people?

My Lords, free concessionary travel for the elderly is one of the great achievements of this Government and we can take great pride in it. This year, we are spending around £1 billion on concessionary fares, which is a huge increase in investment in this area. I fear that I cannot wave a magic wand to reduce rail fares immediately, but I shall bear in mind my noble friend’s remarks.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the indefatigable battle of the late Lord Peyton of Yeovil against holes in the road? In recent months, transport in the centre of London has frequently come to a standstill because of holes in the road. Can he say what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to avoid them?

Not immediately, my Lords. I think that this is more under our control than the weather, which I was asked to seek to change yesterday, but I will need to come back to the noble Countess to set out the precise measures that we are taking in this area.

My Lords, some 15 years ago, I was employed by the organisation NJUG—the National Joint Utilities Group—which was trying to co-ordinate road works to prevent traffic problems. I believe that a previous Government tried to get legislation on this and I see that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is taking new initiatives. However, despite those efforts, the fact remains that utility companies still seem to dig up the roads at random, do not co-ordinate and cause massive problems in traffic disruption. Although this may seem a slightly frivolous question, I urge the Minister to take it seriously and perhaps to take it up with the utilities.

My Lords, no question from the noble Lord could possibly be frivolous, by definition, and I take his point seriously. I did not have immediately to hand the reply, but that was no comment at all on the seriousness of the issue, which I fully recognise. I know how inconvenient it is to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike when work of this kind takes place, appears to be unco-ordinated and, as it always seems to those of us who use the roads, continues long after the time during which a reasonable person might think that it could have been completed.