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Bus Services

Volume 771: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2016

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of trends in the provision of bus services in England and the environmental impact of those trends.

My Lords, it is just over 30 years since the passing of the Transport Act 1985 which deregulated bus services outside London. Since then, local bus passenger journeys outside London have declined by 37%, while in London, where more than half of all bus passenger journeys in England are made, there has been a 105% increase. Sitting here in the centre of our capital city, served by frequent and popular services well funded by Transport for London, it is easy to forget the crisis elsewhere. As we eagerly await the long overdue buses Bill, it is useful to take a look across the country to see what works and what does not, and to evaluate the importance of buses to our economy, our society and our environment. We need also to look ahead, in this time of rapid technological change, to see how we can maximise the benefits that buses can bring, particularly to air quality.

Despite the decline in usage outside London, every day almost 2.5 million people go to work by bus. Bus users make 1.4 billion shopping trips a year. Buses are most important to the vulnerable in society—the poorest, the young, the disabled and the elderly. About half of those in the lowest income group and three-quarters of job seekers have no access to a car. More than half of students are frequent bus users. Concessionary travel for older people has proved that cost is an important factor too, because free travel is immensely popular and has great social benefits. There are problems with the rate of reimbursement to bus companies, but that does not undermine the usefulness of the policy. Indeed, I have recently pressed in this House the need for a similar policy for young people: a standardised system of reduced fares across the country enabling young people to access education and employment, with the added advantage of attracting a new generation on to buses and using them for life. There are compelling environmental reasons for encouraging bus use. Some 15% of global CO2 emissions come from the transport sector. The environmental benefits are greatest in urban areas where the number of passengers per bus is likely to be higher.

Yet despite their importance, bus services face severe cuts. Some 63% of councils in England and Wales have cut bus funding this year and 44% have withdrawn services. Research by the Campaign for Better Transport indicates that subsidies have been reduced by £78 million since 2010 with another £27 million under threat. It likens the situation to the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. The worst hit areas, which make up a long list, include Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Somerset, Dorset, West Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hertfordshire, North Yorkshire and Lancashire—I could go on. In Oxfordshire, for instance, the council has said that it is looking to save £4 million by cutting subsidies to more than 100 routes. Some councils have no subsidy left to cut. Luton, Southend, Cardiff, Blackpool and others now spend nothing on supported bus services. Some rural areas have become public transport deserts.

It does not have to be like this. Faced with the same government funding cuts, some local authorities have found imaginative solutions. Others have prioritised buses in their spending, sensibly seeing the huge knock-on problems if services are cut. The Government, too, need to face up to the same issues, and the test of the buses Bill will be whether they take a comprehensive approach to creating bus services fit for the 21st century. The need has never been greater to maintain and expand services and indeed to attract new customers. Severely congested roads, air quality so poor that it breaches EU pollution limits in some places, rural economies struggling to survive, and an ageing population are just a few of the compelling reasons why we need our buses.

Speculation on the contents of the buses Bill has concentrated on devolution of more powers to local authorities and on franchising. I support the idea that local authorities need more powers. However, these are simply mechanisms to encourage the provision of better bus services. Good local authorities, such as Bedford council, already work closely with partners, but there is huge scope for more to be done. I am impressed by local community transport schemes that are inspired and harness local support, for example, in Ealing and Hackney.

In rural areas the number of potential passengers is sometimes too small to justify a full-size bus. Council transport departments should be under an obligation to work with other services, such as hospitals or education services, to make sure that vehicles are used flexibly and do not sit idle for most of the day. We used to have post buses, and I believe there is still one operating in Scotland. Bring back the post bus.

In Wales we have Dial-a-Ride in some areas. Nowadays this needs to be adapted so we can summon up a vehicle with an app. There is a lot we can learn from Uber style of business. There is nothing sacred about the bus as a style of vehicle, as long as the service is safe, reliable, has disabled access, is low cost and has low emissions.

For buses to thrive and not just survive, new passengers have to be attracted. Cost is one of their top priorities. Bus fares in England increased by 61% between 2005 and 2015, while the RPI rose by only 35%. Deregulation has made it more difficult to co-ordinate bus services and fares, but the Government must take the opportunity to impose an obligation on the industry to introduce smart and contactless ticketing to make sure that it is easy to hop from one bus to another, and to ensure that that can be done without paying extra for the privilege. The technology is there and Transport for London has proved it this week. If Liverpool, Yorkshire and south Hampshire can do it, surely it can be done elsewhere. It reduces boarding times, too, which has knock-on benefits to efficiency, congestion and reducing fuel consumption—and hence pollution.

Confused people do not make willing bus passengers. Route branding, which is basically colour coding buses to distinguish different routes—as used in Reading and now in Bristol—makes a big difference. Real-time information on apps and at stops as well as integrated timetabling all make it much easier for passengers, and would be easier to ensure if local authorities get more control. All of them will encourage new passengers. When you get on the bus you have to know where to get off, so both visual and audio announcements are essential, as is proper driver training.

Cold and wet people do not make willing passengers either, so more has to be done to improve facilities at bus stops. There is so much debate about the need to improve facilities at train stations, yet facilities at bus stops are hardly mentioned. At the same time, two-thirds of passenger journeys are made by bus, so there is a crucial need there.

I have great hopes that the buses Bill will tackle the bus service operators grant, which simply subsidises fuel. In 2016 that is a scandal. There must be incentives for operators to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, so the operators grant must be radically rethought. The Green Bus fund, which was introduced under the coalition, has been crucial in getting investment in the latest technology. Lothian Buses and Reading Buses are leading the way. I am off next week to Transport for London to look at electric buses. Hybrid buses are on the cusp of real popularity. Battery technology is advancing fast.

It is essential that the forthcoming Bill places bold environmental obligations on bus operators to invest in ultra low-emission vehicles and to operate as environmentally efficiently as possible. The Government need to follow that up by incentivising them to reduce fuel consumption and hence emissions. The concept of a cross-government connectivity fund has great attraction and I hope the Government will look at that. This is a wide topic. I look forward to the response of the Minister. There are huge issues here in relation to our environment and air pollution, as well as to society and our economy.

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness for the opportunity to discuss bus services. The House does not debate bus services as often as it should—though those who have heard me over the past 12 years might think we do so far too often. As the noble Baroness indicated, we look forward to the forthcoming buses Bill in the new Session of Parliament. I am sure that the Minister, trusting that he is reappointed, looks forward—as I do—to many happy hours of discussion about the Bill and how best to improve bus services throughout the United Kingdom.

As I indicated, the humble bus does not attract the attention that it ought to but its importance to society is enormous. Buses are vital for the economy and for the environment, but most importantly for people. In the year to the end of last March, some 4.65 billion passenger journeys were taken by bus in England—far more than any other form of public transport. In many cases, buses provide the only way to get to work, shopping, healthcare facilities and so much more for an enormous section of the population. For buses to serve their passengers and future passengers, they must be reliable, affordable, accessible and environmentally friendly.

Time and again, bus passenger satisfaction surveys carried out by Transport Focus highlight that punctuality is the top priority for passengers. Delivering high-quality bus services with a friendly bus driver, that go where passengers want to go at times when people want to travel, at a fair price and in an environmentally friendly vehicle is a shared responsibility. When operators work together with local authorities, real benefits for passengers are achieved. Partnership working has seen passenger numbers rise, complaints fall and has kept fares affordable in many parts of the country.

Here I must differ slightly from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. She talked about the bus industry outside London and mentioned the word “crisis”. I hate to sound like Jim Callaghan—though he did not say it anyway—but, “Crisis? What crisis?”. The fact is that, again going back to the recent Transport Focus surveys, overall bus passenger satisfaction rates of over 90% are not bad. They do not indicate an industry in crisis. Bus operators must be doing something right if their passengers give them an average overall satisfaction rate as high as that.

The bus services Bill has been mentioned, which we expect to come before us some time in the next parliamentary Session. This will, I understand, give local authorities powers to franchise local bus services. I have never made any secret of the fact that I am not a great supporter of franchised bus services. I served on a passenger transport authority in the north-west in the 1970s, I was for a decade a transport spokesman in the other place and I was a bus company chairman in both the public and private sectors for some five years, so I hope I have some experience in these matters.

I draw the attention of the noble Baroness and the Minister to the situation in the West Midlands, where I spent most of the last four decades. The fact is that partnership there has come on enormously and bus passengers in the West Midlands have benefited enormously from the partnerships that have taken place over the years.

It has not been easy. When I first became chairman of Travel West Midlands in the mid-1990s, it was very difficult to get the passenger transport authority to sit round the table and discuss working together in the future. Wicked capitalists were always viewed as being against this sort of co-operation. However, there was, and is, an undercurrent of feeling in parts of local government—again, across party lines—that the last 30 years never happened and that the planning and franchising of bus services should be undertaken in the town hall rather than through bus scheduling generally. The West Midlands Bus Alliance has recently been formed. A press release from Centro, the passenger transport authority, now the delivery arm of the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority, states:

“Bus operators across the West Midlands have signed up to a groundbreaking initiative delivering millions of pounds of investment to the region’s network. The Bus Alliance is the first of its kind in the country and will see £150 million invested by operators and partners between now and 2021. The investment in bus fleets by operators will enable them to meet rigorous new standards on key issues such as vehicle emission levels, branding, maximum fares and frequency”.

I repeat: that is the way forward. I hope I can press the Minister to draw the attention of local authorities in other parts of the country to what has been done, and is being done, in the West Midlands in providing a comprehensive bus service with agreement on all sides rather than with the compulsion which certainly some members of my own party feel is necessary, and which the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, indicated she felt would be necessary for the future.

If the Government and the Treasury provided billions of pounds to repeat the London experience throughout the country, obviously many of my fears would be allayed. However, I do not think that any of us—regardless of party or of where we stand on the bus issue—imagine that the Treasury would be as generous in some of the places named by the noble Baroness and in some conurbations up and down the country as it has been in London.

Let us look at the progress that has been made in the bus industry over the past few years. Today’s vehicles are unrecognisable from those which carried passengers on our streets as little as 15 years ago, with many operators countrywide offering free wi-fi, USB charging points, bus stop announcements and more comfortable seating as standard. Around 95% of the British bus fleet is now either fully accessible or low-floor. The industry is continuing to innovate, invest and deliver for passengers a truly viable alternative to the private car. Let us not forget that the main competitor to the bus industry is not another form of public transport; it is the private car. Unless we can make bus journeys as attractive, quick and prompt as those undertaken by private car, we will not persuade people—I emphasise “persuade”—to leave their cars at home and travel by bus.

Low-carbon buses are becoming increasingly common, not just in London with more than 1,500 hybrids, but throughout the United Kingdom. Innovative technology is playing its part. In Bristol, for example, there are “virtual electric” hybrids capable of sustained zero-emissions operation, and more than 100 biofuel buses will come into service in the coming years which will be carbon-neutral and powered by human waste. Neither political nor nationalistic considerations countrywide will affect the source of fuel as far as those vehicles are concerned. So there is genuine hope and genuine progress in the industry. I hope that when the buses Bill comes before your Lordships it will enhance, increase and improve that progress.

I congratulate the noble Baroness on initiating this important debate. The bus really is the glue that holds together all the other elements which make up a successful and sustainable community. The importance of local bus services cannot be overstated. Despite the uncertainty which operators are feeling because of the impending legislation, I hope the Government will ensure that whatever measures they bring forward in the bus services Bill will enable the commercial market to continue to thrive and innovate for the benefit of the travelling public. It is them and their future that we ought to be concerned about.

I repeat that I wish the Minister well in the new Session of Parliament; if he is still sitting on the Front Bench then I expect him to bring forward—I have said that twice. I hasten to add that I have no inside information about the Minister’s future. I should say that, if he is still on that Bench in the new Session, I expect that, when he brings forward the buses Bill, he and I, the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, perhaps, and other noble Lords on both sides of the Chamber, will spend many happy hours together discussing this. I hope that the conclusions we come to will benefit bus passengers—it is their future, I repeat again, about which we are concerned and it is their future that the buses Bill should concentrate on.

My Lords, it is always good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Snape, on transport issues, but I really want to congratulate my noble friend Lady Randerson on securing this debate—although it is in the last gasp of this parliamentary Session, it is still very worth while.

I want to tell a story about a local service in my own patch of east Lancashire in the town of Colne—the Colne town services—because I think that there are some lessons to draw from local experience. I shall talk particularly about what is now called the 95 service, which nowadays runs from Burnley, via the hospital to Nelson, goes round the houses in Nelson, across the boundary into Colne, past the large store at Boundary Mill then, when it goes to Colne, round the estates on the northern side of Colne, up Colne to the town centre, then plunges down into Waterside—I should declare as an interest that that is the ward I still represent on Pendle Council by the skin of my teeth, or almost the skin of my teeth; we fought them off—and round the houses down the south side then back up Colne. By the way, as I keep saying “up Colne”, noble Lords will realise that Colne is one of England’s few hill towns; the town centre is on the top of the ridge.

This is one of the urban round-the-houses services that date from 1986. The Transport Act 1985 was very controversial—and has been since—as regards the introduction of competition in local bus services, but one of the great advantages, for those councils and transport authorities willing to take advantage, was the strategic and financial roles that the county councils were given in subsidising unremunerative services. In Lancashire in the mid-1980s, there was a minority Labour administration in the county council, supported to a degree by the group that I was a member of, the Liberals, which held the balance of power. Thanks to a number of determined and visionary councillors in both those parties, the county grasped the nettle, grasped the opportunities of that new Bill and led the way in providing subsidised services across the county. I pay particular tribute to my colleague David Whipp, whose vision resulted in new town services coming into effect. The county took over the rural and village services, which had previously been cross-subsidised, but the real innovation throughout the county—from places such as Ormskirk, to Clitheroe, to Barnoldswick, to Colne—were the new town services. Smaller buses ran round the estates and streets where buses had not really been seen before. They have been a great success but, inevitably, they do not make a lot of money in most cases.

Originally, the Colne services were a couple of circuits—called the Colne hopper, if I remember rightly. Over the years, and this is important, the local authority has obtained Section 106 and other moneys from development to help subsidise these services and keep a good service going. One of these subsidies, from the new Boundary Mill store on the boundary of Nelson and Colne, resulted in the county linking the town services in both Nelson and Colne and through into Burnley as the 95 service, known as the Pendle Green Line. After five years, the main Section 106 money that went into providing this really good service was used up, but the county experts were able to rationalise the route and it continued to run with county subsidisation to the absolute benefit of all people—shoppers, young people, people going to the hospital, and so on. It has been a great success.

But then came the budget cuts. For the past two or three years, the reduction in funding for Lancashire County Council has resulted in the screws being put on the subsidised services. Fortuitously, in my view, there is again a Labour minority administration at the county hall, which again requires support from the balance-of-power Liberal Democrat group, of which I am no longer a member. That group has used its power to resist some of the cuts that were being proposed to these bus services. But at the end of last year, to the shock of everybody in the county, the Labour administration announced a proposal to abolish all subsidies in the council because of the need to save something like £55 million—a lot of money even nowadays—in its budget this year, and the county budget for subsidising bus services, which was more than £7 million, was under direct threat. To be fair, this threat flushed out operators, who said, “Okay, we will run a registered commercial service” for some services which had previously been subsidised. Over 30 years the system had got a bit flabby—there is no doubt about that—but the proposals that the county council put forward were devastating. My favourite service, the 95, which I had been involved in setting up so many years before, was under threat again.

However, because no party has overall control of the county council and because of the enormous number of local campaigns to save this service and others—petitions on the internet, on the buses and at the bus stops; people spontaneously turning up at bus stops with placards and holding them all day as the buses came past; there is fantastic public support for these services—compromises had to be reached. The county eventually put £2 million to one side and in Pendle the borough council leadership in the different parties got together with the county councillors. We put together an alternative proposal for the 95, which I wrote up and sent off, and it formed the basis of the new service that we have. So we saved the service. I am particularly proud that we saved the service going down the great steep hills into Waterside. We now have some new Section 106 money to help keep it going a bit longer. Despite the fact that one leading county councillor said that people who voted Liberal Democrat to save these services ought to rot in hell, I do not think that that was a majority view even among the Labour leadership at the county council.

What are the lessons from all this? The first lesson is that these kinds of services, particularly in the light of the budget cuts, are very fragile. It is easy for them to go and once they have gone it will be very difficult ever to get them back. At every possible level—the transport authorities, councillors in the community, campaigners and the local bus operators themselves—have to get together to try to find ways of running these services as efficiently and economically as possible, but to keep them going. But it is very difficult.

The second lesson leads on from that. We could not have done it if we were a big unitary authority. We have been able to do it because we have a lot of councillors—we have a small district council, a town council and relatively small wards—and the councillors from all the parties worked together to put the pressure on and to work out ways of doing it and to help people in the community to campaign. Without that, if we had been a big unitary authority with very few councillors left, as so many places such as Cornwall and Northumberland now are, it would have been much more difficult. That is a second lesson, which is nothing to do with buses directly but to do with the structure of the local democratic set-up.

The third lesson is that, despite all this, if the central government cuts continue at their present level for another three or four years, it will be impossible to save these services because the county councils will inevitably put all their much reduced money into the things that they have to do. They do not have to provide bus services; all the things they have to do, such as social care, will take priority. So no matter how much campaigning there is and how many people like me there are on the ground, stirring people up to campaign and trying to work out ways of saving these services, it simply will not happen. The Government have to understand that they will have to regard local bus services as a priority if they are to survive.

My final point is that the real subsidies to these services come from senior bus passes, not from the direct subsidies to the operators. People say, “Why should all these well-off pensioners get bus passes?”, but if the Government start to mess about with senior bus passes, all these services in towns and villages will go overnight.

First, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for having secured this debate and for giving us the opportunity to discuss a vital mode of transport that is used by millions of people to get to work, to seek work, to attend hospital, to go shopping, to travel to and from school or to spend a few hours in their busy lives enjoying some leisure time.

The new Mayor of London has already made one policy announcement on reducing bus fares, by enabling passengers to make a second bus journey without further charge within one hour of touching in on the first bus. This will be extended by 2018, once ticketing technology has been upgraded to enable passengers to make unlimited bus transfers within one hour—Labour in action, cutting costs for bus passengers and increasing the attractiveness of bus travel.

There were some 4.6 billion passenger journeys, as has been said, on buses in England last year. That sounds a lot but the trend is downwards. There are commercially operated services and services supported by local authorities. The Government’s consistent attack on local government budgets over the last six years has led to a reduction in the ability of local government to provide the money to maintain bus services which are needed but which commercial operators will not provide themselves because they would not be profitable to run. This situation is continuing and even though this Government are spending money or giving handouts elsewhere at present, some local authorities are still being forced to review the extent to which they can continue to provide much-needed bus services for the communities that they serve, due to funding cuts.

More than half of all local authorities in England have cut funding for buses in the last year to 18 months while some 40% have removed or withdrawn services. Seventy per cent of local authorities have cut support for bus services since 2010. In addition to the cut of nearly a third in funding for local authorities, the bus service operators grant, which provides a fuel duty rebate to bus service operators, has been cut. Local authorities have had to reduce funding for bus services by at least 15%, while bus fares have risen by a quarter over the last five years. Some 2,400 local authority-supported bus services have been cut or downgraded.

Unprofitable but needed bus services account for some 17% of bus services in England outside London—down from 24% in 2009-10. They are often the only form of public transport which people in more isolated communities, outside conurbations and major towns, can access. A Commons Transport Select Committee report on passenger transport in isolated communities stated:

“The DfT must recognise that passenger transport provision is fundamental to achieving the objectives of the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education in isolated communities”.

Of course, one-third of all bus journeys are undertaken by the 10 million older and disabled people with concessionary bus passes, like me. Councils have a statutory duty to provide free off-peak bus travel, but funding for the scheme has been cut by nearly 40%, which means that increasingly councils are having to subsidise this free travel at a time when they are struggling to protect vital services such as adult social care, protecting children and collecting household rubbish.

It was of course the 1985 Transport Act which deregulated bus services in England outside London. Since then, local bus passenger journeys made outside London have decreased, as has already been said, by 37%. More than half of all bus passenger journeys made in England now occur in London, which with its regulated services has seen an increase of some 100% in bus use since 1985—albeit, as I understand it, bus use in London may have decreased last year.

In a briefing for this debate, Transport for Greater Manchester said that in its area, bus patronage has remained flat for very nearly the last 20 years. This is better than across Britain as a whole, but does not stand favourable comparison with London. Transport for Greater Manchester says that one of the key reasons behind what it describes as the poor patronage performance of buses derives from the current deregulated market structure. The problem, it says, lies not with the bus companies but with the system within which the companies are obliged to operate. Deregulation, it says, limits the degree to which bus services can be fully joined up and co-ordinated with each other and with other public transport modes. It also inhibits sensible and easy joint ticketing systems such as Oyster, and, unlike in London, it is not possible to offer a single, simple range of tickets valid on all operators’ services. Passengers, it says, are presented with a confusing array of single and multi-operator tickets, and are forced to commit to a particular ticket in advance of travelling, which can be problematic if their travel needs unexpectedly change.

Transport for Greater Manchester continues by saying that deregulation presents a confusing and ever-changing picture of services to the passenger. It prevents, it says, efficient cross-subsidy. On-road competition means that available bus resources are not deployed as efficiently as they could be under a planned franchised environment. Consequently, deregulated bus services in Greater Manchester are not fulfilling their undoubted potential and consequently are not fully serving the city region’s long-term needs. Franchising, says Transport for Greater Manchester, presents a well-understood and much-used model of delivery that secures the benefits of competition while allowing passengers to use an efficiently co-ordinated set of bus services within an integrated public transport network.

When the Minister responds, perhaps he could confirm that those views on a deregulated bus system compared to a regulated or franchised system expressed by Transport for Greater Manchester also reflect the Government’s view. I do not recall the last Mayor of London—who had some sympathy with the Government, apart from on membership of the European Union—ever campaigning to have a deregulated market structure for buses introduced in the capital. Could the Government also say when the elusive buses Bill is going to start its legislative journey through Parliament, which House it will go to first and when it is expected by the Government to reach its destination and become an Act?

Could the Minister say something about the intended content of the buses Bill and whether, in the Government’s view, it will deliver the changes to the current deregulated market structure that Transport for Greater Manchester is seeking, as set out in the briefing to which I referred? Could the Minister also say, if that is the case, whether the Bill will enable those changes to apply to all local transport authorities that want them?

The Question we are discussing refers to the impact of trends in the provision of bus services on the environment. Buses are becoming much more environmentally friendly, thanks in part to European regulations, but with bus use in decline outside London and the number of buses on the roads falling, the potential favourable environmental impacts of cleaner buses are being diminished, not maximised. Of course, a number of local areas have seen the introduction of environmentally friendlier buses, including London, Reading, Southampton, Newcastle, Bristol and in parts of Lancashire. Transport authorities should have powers to set environmental standards for buses in their area of operation. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that is a power that transport authorities generally will be given.

Increasing bus patronage is environmentally friendly, particularly if it results from a transfer from journeys by car. Achieving that includes making journeys by bus a relaxing and stress-free experience. In London, nearly all buses have audiovisual announcements telling passengers the next stop—a crucial facility for those who are visually impaired or hard of hearing. Outside London, apart from areas where local authorities still operate buses, audiovisual announcements are few and far between. Bearing in mind the many calls for such a facility to be provided, including from parliamentary committees, can the Minister assure us that a requirement to have audiovisual announcements on buses—at the very least, on new vehicles—will be included in the forthcoming buses Bill? There is surely no excuse for not doing so. Likewise, can the Minister assure us that the buses Bill will include a requirement for drivers to have the benefit of disability awareness training since, once again, such training can mean the difference between those with a disability feeling encouraged to travel by bus and discouraged from travelling by bus? As I understand it, disability awareness training is, to say the least, patchy.

The buses Bill presents an opportunity for the Government to reverse the damage that has been and continues to be done to local bus services outside London in recent years and to provide, where there is such a demand, for a structure and system for the operation and regulation or franchising of bus services that promotes and encourages bus use, along with the funding to enable these objectives to be delivered. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will reply to the many specific questions raised in the debate and set out how the Government intend to grasp the opportunities provided by the buses Bill for increasing and improving bus services on which so many people depend.

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and congratulate her on securing this debate, as have other noble Lords, and thank all noble Lords for their contribution on this important mode of transport. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for outlining the experience of West Midlands in particular. It would be fair to say that I am very keen, as is the Secretary of State and the department, to see innovative ways in which schemes work, not just in London but beyond. If the noble Lord were to accompany me, I should be delighted, but I look forward to visiting that route and not just hearing about it but experiencing how things are working in the West Midlands.

If I may digress for a moment, I was somewhat perturbed by not just one but two mentions of a possible reshuffle. The noble Lord clearly has his ear closer to the ground than I have; perhaps we should talk outside the Chamber.

In view of the Minister’s invitation for me to accompany him, I assure him that I will put a good word in with the Prime Minister for him.

I thank the noble Lord for his support; I serve, of course, at the Prime Minister’s pleasure.

Returning to the important issue before us, I assure all noble Lords that the Government recognise the importance of buses and the role of public transport more generally for both the sustainability and the independence of communities. Let me say from the outset that we understand the importance of affordable, accessible transport for constituents across England and beyond in Wales and Scotland, through devolved Administrations. We recognise the extra pressures placed on local authorities throughout the country to provide services—particularly, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in more isolated, rural and remote areas.

Transport is not just about levels of public funding, it is about how and where that funding is used. The Government believe that local authorities are best placed to decide what support to provide in response to the needs of their local communities. For example, where commercial operations are not feasible, local authorities have a vital role in supporting bus services. Indeed, around one-fifth of bus mileage in predominately rural authorities is operated under contract to them. That is why the Government devolved £40 million of the £250 million paid in the BSOG bus subsidy to councils outside London last year to support bus services in England, so they can decide for themselves how it is spent. But it is vital that those authorities maximise the return on every penny of the funding they provide. While there is a lot of innovation and hard work done by councils across the country, there is scope to look into more innovative ways.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on his re-election and his journey for all of us to the hill town of Colne. The route 95 is now very much part of the Hansard record. He also highlighted the importance of using other available sources of funding, such as Section 106 money to ensure that important routes are retained.

On the issue of public funding more generally, at present £2 billion per annum of public funding for transport services is provided by a number of agencies. For example, there is the bus service operators grant, or BSOG, of £250 million currently, paid by the DfT to bus operators, local authorities and community transport organisations on the basis of fuel burnt. Then there is the local bus services support of £317 million per annum, provided by the DCLG for local authority support of socially necessary bus services. There is home-to-school transport of £1 billion per annum, also provided to local authorities by the DCLG, and the non-emergency patient transport of £150 million per annum, provided by the NHS to individual local clinical commissioning groups.

Would the Minister accept therefore that the statistics that he has given provide a compelling case for a connectivity fund, which involves getting together across government to ensure that that money is used as effectively as possible?

The noble Baroness may have had sight of my speech in that regard. That is exactly why the Government have launched £7.6 million for the total transport pilot scheme across England, to explore how councils, the NHS and other agencies can work together to commission transport services more effectively, not just to reduce costs but to improve services and avoid duplication of specific commissioned services. Noble Lords may be aware that there are 37 pilot schemes currently halfway through their two-year run, and it is heartening to hear of the enthusiasm with which the participating authorities have taken up that initiative.

I turn to a few of the other sources of transport provision. Community transport in rural areas also requires effective use of all available options, whether it be traditional fixed-route bus services, community buses, dial-a-ride or other types of demand-responsive transport such as taxis. I fully appreciate the role played by community transport operators, which is vital in linking individuals and communities to existing transport networks, work, education, shops and services. With approximately 8 million passenger trips taking place in rural areas, their services both encourage growth and, importantly, reduce isolation. In recognition of the important role that they play, the Government launched a £25 million community minibus fund to help to buy new vehicles for local community transport organisations, with a strong focus on rural areas. This funding will help elderly residents, people with learning and physical disabilities and those who do not have access to a commercial bus service. The noble Baroness raised that concern. I am delighted to say that more than 300 local charities and community groups across England will receive new minibuses through the fund. To date, over £1.3 million of grant funding has been paid to organisations for them to buy their vehicles. I am pleased with the outcome of this fund so far, but we are keen to explore further ways to continue to support the sector.

Noble Lords also, rightly, raised the issue of concessionary travel. The Government are fully aware of the importance of affordable, accessible transport, particularly for older and disabled people. Therefore, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that that is why the Government are committed to protecting the national bus travel concession in England, spending over £900 million a year doing so. I know there have been calls for the scheme to be amended in order to mitigate costs. However, the bus pass provides much-needed help for around 10 million of the most vulnerable people in society by providing them with greater freedom and independence and is often a lifeline to their local community. It also brings benefits to the wider economy.

All noble Lords raised the buses Bill. I remember answering a Question about buses in which the buses Bill came up. At that time, I said “watch this space”. All I will say to noble Lords is: watch this space for a shorter period now. I am sure it is just over the horizon. Local decision-making is key, and the Government are committed to devolution and the decentralisation of decision-making. I am therefore pleased to announce that we are currently preparing to introduce our bus services Bill during the next parliamentary Session. The prime focus of the Bill is delivering powers to local authorities for them to make decisions over their local bus services in line with local priorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about specific provisions. The Bill will be published, and we will have discussions about it. It will introduce new franchising powers and contain stronger arrangements to allow local government to work in partnership with bus operators and local stakeholders. We believe that it will allow bus services to meet the challenges of the 21st century, as the noble Baroness said. We are committed to legislating to provide powers for local authorities to franchise their bus network, subject to agreement from government, but we want to develop a package of measures to ensure that local authorities which do not wish to pursue franchising have the tools to improve their local services.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, spoke about smart ticketing outside London. I understand that 93% of all bus journeys outside London are made on vehicles that can accept smart tickets. He made an important point about new rolling stock across the board, which is a valid issue to raise. I raised it in preparation not only for this debate but for the imminent buses Bill. The rolling stock that is made available must be appropriate for use on all networks and must reflect the needs of the 21st century for ticketing, announcements and visual aids, which were mentioned by other noble Lords. They are important contributions to improve the use of buses, their accessibility and smart ticketing.

The environment was rightly raised. Where cleaner, greener buses have operated, we have all recognised the benefits. The technology is still evolving, but I welcome the advances already made, particularly for the future provision of environmentally friendly public transport. The Government are committed to improving the environmental performance of buses. Building on the success of the £88 million green bus fund under the previous coalition Government, the Government are providing £30 million of funding for low-emission buses from 2016. The emissions and air-quality eligibility thresholds of this scheme are even more demanding than those for previous green bus fund rounds. We are also encouraging the take-up of low-carbon buses by paying 6p for every kilometre operated by those buses through the bus service operators grant.

We had some valuable contributions based on a range of experiences. During the passage of the buses Bill in the next Session, I look forward to discussing with noble Lords the importance of improving bus services across our country, but I recognise that there is no single solution that will work everywhere. However, I am confident that our commitment to local transport, as demonstrated by some of the initiatives I have outlined, will continue to encourage local authorities, operators and communities to work in partnership to decide how best to provide access to services for residents.

Transport for London was mentioned. I am sure we acknowledge the efforts made by the previous mayor to improve bus services and all modes of transport in London. I congratulate the new Mayor of London on his successful election. I have already been in discussion with him to see how we can work together for the benefit of Londoners, which is an important part of government and the mayoralty in London. If other mayors come into place under the devolution agenda, central government can work well with them and local authorities to ensure that we provide the best access to services for residents.

I hope I have been able to demonstrate that this Government are committed to maintaining and improving local public transport in all areas. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to ensuring that we have bus services and networks that work well not only in our cites but for rural villages throughout our country.