Skip to main content

Transport: Buses

Volume 713: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2009

Question

Asked By

What is their programme for implementing the bus services provisions of the Local Transport Act 2008; and in particular what measures they are intending to implement, and by when, to improve the quality of bus services in the English metropolitan areas outside London.

My Lords, the Local Transport Act 2008 provides significant new opportunities for local authorities to improve the quality of bus services in their areas. Authorities can already take advantage of the provisions about voluntary partnership agreements and quality partnership schemes, which are fully in force. The new statutory arrangements for quality contract schemes should be finalised by the end of the year.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, following the unexplained delay until July of this year in publishing for consultation the draft regulations and guidance for the excellent bus quality contract schemes. Is he aware that transport authorities cannot meaningfully consider such schemes until there is a clear timescale for making available the final guidance on quality contract schemes? This is simply delaying improvements for passengers, as the Office of Fair Trading’s recent report considered that a remedy for the lack of competition in the bus sector would be to encourage the use of quality contract schemes to develop competition for the bus market. When does my noble friend now expect the first quality contract schemes outside London to be in place?

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s support for the principle of quality contracts, but I very much take exception to the suggestion that they have been unduly delayed. There has been no delay in setting up the arrangements. The consultation ended on 7 October and, as I said in my Answer, the guidance and necessary regulations will be published by the end of the year. The reason why it has taken some while to move from the enactment of the 2008 Act to the publishing of the guidance and the regulations is that the Government have been working at the same pace as the local authorities, as they were asked to. The legislation is about local empowerment. There are a number of measures in the Local Transport Act to which the local authorities attach particular importance and it is those that have received the priority. However, it is now up to the local authorities whether they wish to proceed with quality contracts. Naturally, we hope that they will do so.

My Lords, in his opening remarks the Minister mentioned voluntary partnerships. These have been up and running for some time, but the transport Act 2008 was designed to make them easier and ensure that they do not fall foul of competition law. Does the Minister understand that the Secretary of State’s guidance on the issue has done very little to change the status quo, and that there is therefore a great deal of difficulty in implementing these voluntary partnerships without falling foul of competition law? What are the Government going to do to remedy that?

My Lords, I am very surprised to hear the point that the noble Baroness makes. During the Recess I spent a day in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire with Trent Barton, which has signed a very comprehensive quality partnership with the two local authorities in its area. It is providing a hugely improved quality of service to the local people in that area, working in collaboration with the local authorities, particularly in Nottingham, where it has established its own smart card. I am not aware of the difficulties that the noble Baroness has raised, but I will certainly check, and, if there are any, I will come back to her.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister will turn his mind to the parlous state of the bus industry. I refer to the woefully inadequate reimbursement of concessionary fares; the reduction in the availability of resources from local authorities for supporting the bus industry, to which he has referred; the greatly increased regulatory burdens on the industry such as the revised drivers’ hours legislation; and the proposed attack by the department on the bus service operators grant, which will result in the fares of those who do have to pay going up substantially. Will the Minister address these issues, which are fundamental to the health of the industry?

My Lords, the picture that the noble Lord paints of the bus industry in this country is not one that I or the great majority of bus users recognise. The introduction of free travel for older and disabled people, which came in in 2008, has provided travel opportunities for 11 million people, is hugely popular and has reversed the decline in the use of bus services. The Government are providing additional funding of £217 million this year, and a further £223 million in 2010-11, in order to fund the concessionary fares scheme. The Government have also paid around £30 million to local authorities for the cost of issuing the England-wide bus passes. This is not an industry in decline. As a result of the Government’s policy, bus usage is going up and the industry is a great deal more popular.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the Mayor of London’s budget problems with transport, which are exacerbated by his scrapping the congestion charge for the west of London, scrapping the £25 charge for gas guzzlers, putting up bus fares by 12.7 per cent and wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on replacing the bendy bus, which will cause a lot of extra pollution and reduce the number of bus passengers? Is this a good example of what will happen when these regulations come into play in the rest of the country?

My Lords, transport operators put up their fares for two reasons: either because they have to or because they choose to. In the case of Transport for London and the mayor, the fare increase is entirely out of choice. It would not have been necessary for the fares in London to rise by 12.7 per cent—or to rise at all—if it were not for the factors that my noble friend referred to, namely the scrapping of the western extension of the congestion charge, which would have raised £50 million, the dropping of plans to impose additional congestion charge on the most polluting vehicles, which would have raised another £50 million, and the crazy scheme to abolish the bendy buses and replace them with double-deckers. This is a matter for Transport for London and the mayor. He must answer for the consequences of that decision. The original forecast that he made of what the cost of that would be is so far short of the reality—perhaps by a factor of as much as 10—that he should be held to account by the people of London.

My Lords, the Government are determined that young people and lone mothers should go to work. There is acute difficulty in rural areas, where they have no transport. The Minister mentioned concessionary fares for the elderly, but many jobs that women and young people get are extremely low paid, and bus fares are too high for them to afford. Are there any concessionary measures which the Government can make to help these people keep jobs once they get them?

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Countess in her reference to the importance of rural bus services. It is a concern that the Government very much share. The Department for Transport supplies nearly £60 million a year to local authorities in the form of rural bus subsidy grant, the purpose of which is to support those rural services. Some 2,000 bus services are supported in this way and that assists 38 million passenger journeys a year. The Government have invested heavily to ensure that resources are available for uncommercial routes, particularly in rural areas, and local and national funding for that is around £2.5 billion a year. The bus industry has every prospect of doing well and the role that it will play in rural areas will, I hope, continue to grow.