Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they propose to take to reverse the decline in the use of buses in England outside London.
My Lords, I think this is the third debate in Grand Committee about bus services. One was tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and one by my noble friend Lady Randerson. Having read the debates, I thought that the conclusions really meant almost nothing at all; the words went into the air but the actions did not follow.
Much time is spent by politicians discussing the bus industry. Unfortunately, most of them talk about ownership. This has little to do with the major issue that confronts the bus operators: congestion. The use of buses in England outside London has been on a downward trend for about nine or 10 years. Congestion affects private and public sector operators regardless of ownership. I often travel on buses in Reading, which are run by a municipal company, and in Oxford, where the companies are privately owned. In both cities there are fairly effective partnership arrangements, modern vehicles and enterprising ticketing systems, which are improving. Nevertheless, they are suffering declining levels of patronage caused by congestion, which is felt throughout Great Britain. This subject will form the core of my remarks. I hope that the Minister, in her reply, can give some positive answers.
First, I draw attention to the fact that the bus industry has suffered a significant decline in financial support relative to the car. Fuel duty for road transport has been frozen since 2011. The bus service operator’s grant, which the bus industry has traditionally enjoyed, has been reduced by about 20%; that means that, relative to the car, its costs associated with fuel have increased. Wages in the bus industry have to be competitive to attract and keep drivers, because bus driving is not a very nice job, and have risen well in advance of general wage levels, particularly in the cities.
Another fiscal measure that needs close examining is the availability of concessionary travel to young people. These people have a high propensity to travel and will make more and more journeys if they can afford it. Making young persons’ railcards available on trams and buses—as well as trains—would stimulate travel, and serious consideration should be given to this measure. It might not be very expensive because of the high propensity to travel. It would also be a disincentive to car ownership. It really is time we stopped talking about this and moved on to some action.
However, bus operators must shoulder high fixed costs. They have to provide vehicles of higher and higher standards because the engines’ emissions have to keep improving; they pay wages that rise faster than average; and they must operate to high standards of reliability and punctuality to retain or increase market share—and indeed to continue to enjoy the privilege of a licence to operate.
The efforts of operators to maintain standards of punctuality are frustrated by increasing traffic congestion. It has been shown that efforts by the bus industry to maintain punctuality by increasing the number of buses operating on a route increases operators’ costs by an average of some 8%. However, it provides no additional revenue, and if costs are passed on through higher fares, passenger numbers decline further and we are in a vicious circle. One is forced into a situation where government, either nationally or locally, must take action if effective remedies are to be found for the problems of bus punctuality. Almost any initiative the companies can make without tackling the problems associated with congestion is likely to fail.
That brings us to the fundamental question of why so much is done in cities to encourage car use and so little to facilitate bus operation. Is it because of the intense pressure from the motoring lobby or the cowardice of politicians nationally or locally—local authorities vie with each another to attract cars to their shops with offers of highly subsidised parking, often ignoring the land values attaching to city-centre car parks—or is it because of an unwillingness to get tough with obstructive parking? When all these advantages are weighed in any objective assessment, what advantage does the bus have and who speaks for the bus user? In this situation, should not government, local or national, try to redress the balance effectively?
What ambitions are available apart from effective road markings and effective enforcement? Obviously, the simplest is the introduction of road user pricing. This can be made fiscally neutral by adjustments to vehicle excise duty but it would mean that those who chose to drive on the busiest roads at the busiest times would pay more and those in the country would pay less or, more likely, nothing at all. This use of the pricing mechanism is the way that markets work in almost every other field, and I believe it is the policy of the Government. Pricing would be time-related so that small charges would be made between the peaks and none at all at night. The whole process could be conducted automatically, so there would be no need for vehicles to stop. The technology is essentially the same for policing low-emission areas and can be expected to operate reliably.
The Traffic Management Act 2004, brought into force by the then Labour Government, provided for some measures to deal with congestion, including decriminalisation of certain offences such as abuse of parking regulations. These may be enforced by local authorities, which are enabled to retain the proceeds from penalty notices to defray the costs of enforcement. Most local authorities elected to apply to take up these powers, although some still have not. In fact, the area in which I live in South Oxfordshire has not done so and has tried to rely on police enforcement, which does not exist. The police have far greater priorities—we have only to look at what has gone on in Salisbury.
The result is that dangerous and illegal parking is rife in the area, which has undesirable consequences in terms of congestion. It also brings the law into disrepute. Because people see offences routinely not being prosecuted, they push further and further and ignore other regulations. However, local authorities which have adopted these decriminalised powers wish to go further to eliminate some other offences which aggravate congestion, such as illegal right turns and the abuse of yellow box junctions. Powers for Her Majesty’s Government exist within Schedule 6 to the Act but have not been brought into effect outside London, despite huge pressure from the Local Government Association. I urge the Minister to agree to do this right away and to impress on those local authorities that have not adopted the decriminalised powers to do so quickly.
Access to the highway for roadworks, mostly by the utilities, causes delay. Under the same Act, we were supposed to see “highway management”, which would see some control exercised over the utilities by the introduction of things such as lane rental. What has become of this, and why does the Minister think that the co-ordination of roadworks, which was promised at the time, does not work? Highway maintenance causes delays for which the supposed remedy of lane rental has not been an effective response, while the unresolved problem of potholes goes from bad to worse. It is no good berating the bus companies about punctuality, as Transport Focus does, unless the root causes are tackled by the Government. Buses, unlike the railways, have no control over the highways on which they operate. That control belongs to government, both local and national, as does the enforcement of their operation.
Partnerships work well in some areas such as Brighton, but even there some 13 buses have been added since 2012 to the fleet of 200—
I am sorry, but the noble Lord’s time to speak is up.
I am sorry, but I have almost finished. Those buses have been added because of the effects of congestion. In Oxford, in 1996 the journey from Abingdon to the city centre took 70 minutes but now takes 96. Within the city, a trip to Kidlington which in 1986 took 60 minutes now takes 80. I have many other examples from elsewhere around the country. The single issue I want to hear more about from the Minister is what the Government propose to do about congestion.
My Lords, some of your Lordships will remember the cuts made in the 1960s to train services following recommendations made in the Beeching report. The effects of that still haunt many rural areas, particularly in the south-west peninsula and in my own county of Devon. Regrettably, there is evidence that we are suffering a similar decline in our rural bus services. This has accelerated rapidly since the Cameron Government slashed grants to operators and funding for councils. The situation we face is that UK bus coverage has now hit a 28-year low, down to levels of service last seen in the 1980s. In the past 10 years alone, we have seen the loss of 134 million miles of coverage. Further evidence of the speed of decline is stark. In 2016, some 248 services in England were reduced or altered, with 124 being withdrawn. The worst affected that year was my county of Devon, where 58 services were affected.
In 2017, cuts to local authority funding support for the south-west were 10%. In that year, for example, Dorset County Council slashed £1.85 million from its subsidy scheme, cutting the number of bus services it assisted from 35 to a mere seven. In 2018, the decline looks likely to continue. We have just heard that Northamptonshire County Council has voted to remove its entire bus subsidy. Local authorities have historically been at the forefront of subsidising unprofitable routes, but this proud and worthy record now seems destined to quietly slip away. It will leave gaps in whole swathes of our rural areas covered either by commercial operators, which are becoming more risk-averse and therefore investing only in profitable routes, or by community and charitable groups.
The only area where services have increased is London, which now accounts for 25% of all the bus miles travelled in England, and where you can see bus after bus with scarcely anyone in them. It would be easy to blame this situation on a lack of demand and an increasing rise in car use. In Devon, the third biggest county in England, with a population of around 750,000, around 150,000 people—19% of the county’s population—are without the use of a private vehicle. Also, many of those with cars are struggling because of the lack of service facilities outside urban centres. The decline in rural garages has been dramatic. Since 2000, some 4,000 out of a total of 7,000 independent operators have closed down.
The further isolation of our rural communities is something that this Committee should deplore, but why? In addition to social mobility, many people are now struggling to reach the basic services most of us take for granted, including shops, education and health. It is estimated that 400,000 people are in work or in a better job because of the availability of a bus service. Fifty per cent of students are frequent bus users for access to education and training. Our economists calculate that bus commuters generate £64 billion of economic benefit per year, with bus users making shopping and leisure trips worth £27.2 billion per year.
So how are the Government going to address these issues? Although the Bus Services Act 2017 was designed to get local authorities and bus companies working in partnership to improve services, clearly it did not take into account continuing cuts to local authority budgets. The Transport Secretary has suggested a change to demand-led services, Uber style. I remind him of the enormous value of our community and charitable organisations. In Devon, for example, rural community transport charities provide a ring-and-ride service on a wheelchair-enabled minibus for shopping, a volunteer car service for people requiring transport to important appointments at hospital and so on, and a community minibus hire service. Similar services are being provided in other cut-off communities in Wales and north-west England.
What can be done? I shall make a few suggestions. First, more noise is needed to prevent a Beeching-style repeat. Secondly, assuming that local authority budgets will be slashed further, local authority budgets should be ring-fenced or top-sliced for the continued provision of rural services. Thirdly, there should be a review of the method of funding, revenue support being more helpful than capital. Fourthly, there should be an urgent review of the effects on rural bus services of the English national concessionary scheme, which provides free travel for those aged over 65. Fifthly, we should consider making rural bus services a statutory provision, as with education and health, rather than optional. Sixthly, we should establish a national connectivity fund. Seventhly and finally, we need a total transport scheme which can use the power of the digital world to provide integrated networks.
The Transport Secretary needs to get to grips with this as there is much anxiety and aggravation out there. Mr Reg Varney from the TV series “On the Buses” will surely be after the Transport Secretary unless something happens.
I thank my noble friend Lord Bradshaw for tabling today’s debate and for being so effective in keeping the woes of the bus industry on the agenda because buses tend to get overtaken by railways.
Like the noble Earl, I shall use my time to speak about rural bus services in England, where there is a particularly intractable set of problems. Last year, when the Bus Services Bill was going through this House, rural issues were raised quite a number of times. The Minister, to his credit, was forced to admit that not enough attention had been paid to the potential benefits that could come from the Bus Services Act if it was implemented in the right way. I know we are not so far on, but it would be very interesting to hear from the Minister what work is going on in the department to make sure that rural areas are not forgotten. During the passage of the Bill, we talked about the way in which the commissioning process could use the Public Services (Social Value) Act criteria to level the playing field with social and community providers of transport. That was something the Minister was quite responsive to, so I would like to hear a little more about that.
I shall make two points which at one level are rather obvious, but which are not always well understood. First, there are different sorts of rural areas. The village I live in in Suffolk is tiny. There are about 200 people in the parish, and it has never had a regular bus service. People stay there only if they have access to a car, and community transport plays an important part for a very small number of people with particular needs. A mile away is a village 10 times the size, which is a completely different kettle of fish. It has always had a very good bus service. People moved there knowing that they had access to the nearby market town and then onwards to Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. The service has undergone successive contractions and it is now getting harder and harder for people to use the bus to get into work, or to hospitals and other places. These are both rural communities but they have very different expectations and needs.
The second point is that it is convenient to think about rural and urban areas separately, but of course they are inextricably linked. The overall health of the bus industry, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Bradshaw, is very bad, and if it is bad overall, it is dire in rural areas. We have to understand that they are linked. Also, there is the congestion problem: given that most rural journeys might originate in a rural area but are going to an urban area, they are also impacted.
The CPRE has recorded that supported mileage by local authorities has fallen by 24%. It is using the term, “the Beeching of the buses”. Many of them are in rural areas. It is quite illuminating that the Campaign for Better Transport worked out that the total of those lost grants is £225 million in England. That is a lot of money for local authorities, but in government terms, it is the cost of a single bypass. It represents 17% of bus journeys but the ones that are the most socially necessary for some groups.
In 2016, this House published a report on the way in which the Equality Act is being delivered. There was a particular strand of evidence from users about the way in which local authorities fail to do proper impact assessments when they are making decisions about bus provision. As a consequence, a number of groups now face very real problems, which are bad enough if you are in an urban area—in a rural area, it is hopeless. Many older people are unable to drive and depend on public transport. Reimbursement of the bus pass is not keeping up with the costs and, in any case, in many places there are no services on which to use a concessionary pass. In some areas, including my own, a switch to community transport schemes is all very well, but the local authority has used the licensing regime of the buses used to deny passengers the use of their concessionary fares pass.
We know that younger people are taking fewer journeys. In an urban area, that is probably quite a good thing, but in rural areas the only practical way for younger people to look for work or attend higher education—or even have some sort of social life—is running a car. I was talking to providers running the Government’s flagship National Citizen Service; they told me that rural transport is a real barrier to participation for many young people and—because the NCS is provided on a county basis—there was a ridiculous situation where students on the Cambridgeshire border were expected to get to Ipswich, which was just impossible by public transport, but could not go to Cambridge, where there is a bus. The delivery of some of these other services really needs looking at.
For jobseekers without access to a car, just getting to job centres is a real problem. There is the iniquity of people being sanctioned when the system lets them down. Then, of course, there are people on low incomes, who are very dependent on buses. In rural areas, because there are no buses, it is more likely that people who really cannot afford to do so are having to run one or even two cars just to get to work and so on. The irony of all this is that collectively we are actually spending quite a lot of money on buses. Between the bus operators grant, concessionary fares, home-to- school transport, the voluntary sector and health and social providers, there is a lot—but it has never been joined up.
I know that the Government have created some pilots under the Total Transport scheme, covering 37 local authority areas. It would be really useful to know a bit about the outcome of the pilots and what lessons were learned. On a linked point, the Campaign for Better Transport and the Passenger Transport Group are keen to see a connectivity fund, which would bring together this expenditure. I look forward to the Minister’s answer and I hope that she understands the very real concerns that are being expressed today about the overall state of the bus industry, particularly in rural areas.
I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for bringing this important question before us today. The topic is close to my heart: I have spent much of my life and ministry working in rural areas. I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Given that I, too, am going to talk about particular challenges to do with rural bus services, which the noble Earl, Lord Arran, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, have spoken about, I also declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition.
As a former Bishop of Shrewsbury and the current Bishop of St Albans, when I was looking at the statistics I was deeply alarmed to discover that Bedfordshire, in my diocese, and Shropshire, in my previous patch, have seen the second and third-greatest reductions in bus services in terms of miles lost in the country in the past four years, beaten only by Bracknell Forest. Even worse is the decrease in the quantity of subsidised bus miles in those two areas, which has decreased by 77% and 81% respectively. This has a huge impact on a whole variety of groups, particularly vulnerable people in our rural areas. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will not ignore it. Indeed, as we are wanting, longing, hoping and working for a flourishing, thriving rural community and countryside, this is a really vital aspect.
Age UK’s 2010 Loneliness and Isolation Evidence Review found strong evidence that physical isolation is still the single factor most closely associated with feelings of loneliness. Lack of a good rural bus service has an impact on a large number of groups: those who are too elderly or too young to drive, who cannot drive due to a disability or who simply cannot afford to drive at all. In those cases rural transport, particularly buses, is a vital lifeline, as well as providing important social interaction. A lack of transport is a barrier to community and to flourishing in the countryside.
As more and more services become available online and local services close or amalgamate, those without good internet connectivity or digital skills must travel even further to get the help they need. That is one of the reasons why I have been particularly passionate in talking and working with the whole issue of rural connectivity: it is fundamental if we are going to see our rural areas continue to thrive. Not everyone can use online banking. A trip to the hospital for a regular appointment can be a huge endeavour if you live in a rural area—less than one-fifth of those in rural areas have access to a hospital within a reasonable time by public transport or walking. That is not to mention the problems people can have enrolling for universal credit when they do not have a computer at home and the nearest job centre is miles away, as we have already heard, or the challenge of looking for work when people cannot drive to interviews or have young children at home to look after.
I am sure it will not surprise noble Lords that surveys show that people in rural areas express significant levels of dissatisfaction when it comes to issues of public transport. According to an analysis produced by the Department for Transport this year, more than 70% of people living in London are satisfied with their bus service compared to only 24% of those in the most rural areas.
The 2012 decision to cut the bus service operators grant, which central government gives to local authorities to subsidise socially necessary bus services, continues to bite, and has bitten especially hard in more rural parts of my diocese. Community groups, charities and church groups do extraordinary work to serve their communities by providing transport. Last week I was visiting a parish where all sorts of people use cars and minibuses to collect a whole lot of young people together for a youth group. A few weeks ago I was at a church where people were describing their weekly lunch for the elderly; they manage to ensure that everybody gets their lift in. This is, of course, informal and voluntary; it is not the same as a consistent bus service so people are able to get to places when they need to. In 2014, the Transport Select Committee of the other place concluded that:
“Central Government and local authorities are being unrealistic if they expect voluntary community transport projects to compensate for decreased bus services. Although community transport has an important role to play, in practice it does not serve all sections of the community and therefore cannot substitute for bus services”.
Young people in rural areas in particular suffer when they do not have access to consistent, timely, affordable bus services. I would therefore like to know from the Minister what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to make rural bus services a priority. What assessment have they made of the appropriateness of current access to services, and what analysis has been made of the impact of cuts, both centrally and to local government funding, on service provision? What are the Government doing to ensure that the worst off, particularly the young, have reasonable access to bus services? Will the cross-governmental strategy on loneliness be doing any work on rural transport?
As I travel around, I hear this issue raised time and again and I cannot overstate its importance. Bus services are a lifeline for rural communities and are becoming increasingly important in a digital age. I hope that today’s debate will spur Her Majesty’s Government, and indeed all of us, on in this important area.
My Lords, 5% of all journeys are made by bus and buses are the most popular form of public transport. It is interesting that you do not meet many bus enthusiasts; you meet lots of train enthusiasts, but trains are in fact far less important to the day-to-day life of our nation. Some 4.5 billion journeys a year are made by bus but, as the noble Earl, Lord Arran, stated, the bus network is now back at 1980s levels and has shrunk by 8% in the past decade—or by 134 million miles—with 2,000 services affected. North-west England and Wales have been hardest hit, with a 40% reduction in rural areas in the past decade. Yet, ironically, in England at least, the number of passengers has increased slightly. It is just that there is no bus for them to go on and nowhere for them to go. The demand is clearly there. The analogy with the Beeching era and the cuts to trains in the 1960s is a very good one.
The cause of all this needs to be examined. The key issue is certainly local government finance. Local authorities face financial constraints and they have cut discretionary subsidised bus services. Councils have a statutory duty to fund concessionary travel by pensioners and disabled people. This is very popular with the public, but councils estimate that there is a shortfall of at least £200 million for the funding of concessionary fares. This has meant that they have diverted money to make up this shortfall, taking it from previously subsidised routes, concessionary fare schemes—which, in many cases, they had set up themselves, very often for young people—and community transport.
Although I am hopeful that the Bus Services Act will encourage better working between operators and councils, I believe that the Act missed opportunities. There were things that could have been done that were not done. For example, it could have been made easier for councils without elected mayors to establish franchising and there could have been stronger incentives or requirements for environmental improvements. I am very pleased that the Government are giving nearly £40 million to retrofit buses, which is going to 20 local authorities as part of the clean bus technology fund. That is great, but in some areas there are no buses to retrofit, and £40 million is certainly not going to solve the emissions problem. The Government could have created the bus passengers of tomorrow with mandatory concessionary fare schemes for young people, who need buses to get to jobs and education and for their social lives.
The Minister has heard time and again this afternoon concern for rural areas. I am aware that there was a phone-in programme recently where a man from Devon rang to say that in his village there were only three buses a week. He explained that if he wanted to go to the doctor, which was in the nearest town, he had to stay overnight because by the time he had had his appointment, the bus had returned home for the day. That is really dysfunctional and it makes it almost impossible to live in some rural areas without a car. A colleague of mine in the Welsh Assembly talked about seeing hitch-hiking pensioners in her rural constituency. I am worried enough about the concept of hitch-hiking pensioners; the idea that teenagers might be tempted to hitch-hike worries me even more.
The irony of all this is that one of the reasons why buses are struggling in urban areas is increasing traffic congestion, which leads to unpredictable journey times, and yet congestion is one of the main reasons why we need more buses to encourage people out of their cars on to more environmentally friendly forms of transport. A further irony is that another threat to our bus services is the fact that some councils, in attempting to set up ultra-low emission zones, are targeting buses—diesel buses—first. That is totally topsy-turvy. I realise that a diesel bus is polluting but you can get dozens of car owners on a diesel bus and save dozens of car journeys and therefore prevent those emissions. The establishment of ultra-low emission zones must be done in a balanced and sensible manner.
I end by asking the Minister: can she assure us that the Government will put more resources into supporting low and zero-emission initiatives for buses? Will the Government work with local authorities to ensure that buses are not primary targets in the establishment of ultra-low emission zones? Can she give us even a glimmer of hope that the Government are prepared to evaluate the potential benefits of youth concessionary fares? I emphasise that this is an issue of intergenerational justice. Older people such as me can have a bus pass but in many areas young people are not able to get that bus pass for themselves. Finally, will the Government review the grants to local authorities and the refunds for concessionary fares with a view to reforming them to create a better and fairer system for local authorities’ financial support for bus services?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for tabling this Question for Short Debate. It is very good to be able to discuss this important issue. I also draw the attention of the Grand Committee to my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. As we have heard, buses are an important lifeline for people, and the decline in bus use outside London is a serious problem that is affecting the viability of communities, particularly rural communities and those areas in our towns and cities less well served by other modes of transport, as they strive to be sustainable.
The noble Earl, Lord Arran, referred to the cuts in funding to bus schemes by local authorities and the effect that this has had on rural communities. I agree with him. I also agree with his comments about the need for effective bus services to enable people to get to work. Rural areas will suffer further decline if working people cannot live there and get to work—a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, also spoke about rural areas and the dire problems experienced there with the decline in bus services. The risk of course is that they become places where people in cities have second or weekend homes, and that further exacerbates the problem until an area becomes unsustainable and dies. The right reverend Prelate spoke about the need for thriving communities, and I agreed with his comments about loneliness. Bus use and the provision of bus services have to be part of integrated services to make communities viable. Their decline is doing huge damage. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, spoke about car use and car parking. Work is going on to deter this but, as he said, it is not matched by a good bus service being in place to encourage people to get out of their cars and on to buses.
As we have heard, about half the bus journeys in England are made outside London, and, since bus deregulation in 1986, these are largely delivered by private operators. The Bus Services Bill was passed into law in 2017 and generally it is a good piece of legislation. It certainly seeks to help reduce the decline in bus use outside London. It has been on the statute book for only a year, which is probably too short a period to see whether it is having the desired effect.
However, generally there has been a downward trend in bus use over a number of years in both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. Bus deregulation may have played a part in that, as operators have sought to work on the more profitable routes without the constraint of the routes, timetables and fares being set for them, as has been the case in London for many years. I agreed with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made about congestion. That has been a real issue affecting bus use in recent years.
Of course, the decline in bus use could be attributed to other forms of public transport coming on stream in addition to the railways. I have certainly noticed light rail and modern tram services in some of our major conurbations, such as Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Nottingham. There may also be other issues affecting bus use. We have heard about the reductions in spending as local authorities have had to take account of their resources, and that has had a knock-on effect on the money spent on buses.
Car use is still high in rural areas and, as services have declined, the reliance on car journeys has increased even more. One bus in and one bus out a day from a town to nearby villages five days a week does not deliver the required level of service. You then get a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline, which has a huge impact on communities.
There are also issues with bus fares, operator revenues and government grant schemes, which, again, have had an effect on bus numbers and need to be taken account of. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made a point about the effect of bus punctuality. We in London are very lucky with the number of buses that we have but in fact London has the worst punctuality rate in the whole of England. There is always another bus coming along, so no one knows whether it is late or not.
Earlier, I mentioned the Bus Services Act 2017. As I said, this was an attempt if not to increase bus use then certainly to halt its decline, and I wish that legislation every success. Work being done to make buses more user-friendly is to be welcomed. I was particularly pleased to hear that audio-visual services on buses outside London are to be improved. That should help to make disabled people more confident about getting on buses. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, can update us on that when she responds to the debate.
We have had various partnership schemes between bus operators and local authorities for many years. These have not stopped the decline in bus use but they may have slowed it. The enhanced partnership schemes introduced by the Bus Services Act are a further extension of that. If the noble Baroness can say what has happened since the Act was brought forward, that would be helpful, although I appreciate that it has been in force for only a year. I am aware that there is a procedure to go through, including consultation and the issuing of notices, but anything that she can say will be helpful and I look forward to hearing from her.
One thing introduced in the Act, of course, was bus franchising, which was very welcome. But one thing that I was unhappy about was the obsession of the Government with metro mayors. You got these powers by default rather than having to apply to the Secretary of State only if you had a metro mayor. That is a regrettable decision and not very localist. I am aware that Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool and Tim Bowles in the West of England have all pledged to use the powers. I am not sure how far they have got yet in establishing a scheme, but I was surprised that Andy Street, the Conservative metro mayor for the West Midlands, had not made any pledges at all. I actually know the West Midlands really well. I lived there for many years, and that certainly is one area that could do with a system where a bus franchise could have its timetable, fares and routes regulated much more by the metro mayor. I hope that he changes his mind. If the Minister has any more information, I would be pleased to hear it.
We have heard about open days, which would be useful to make things more helpful for bus users. I was particularly interested to read the briefing from Age UK about the problems older people have in getting to, for example, hospital appointments. As I said, having one bus in and one bus out a day really is not helpful to get you to hospital appointments. The quality of the buses, uncomfortable journeys and inconvenient times are all issues. Of course, what happens then is that people either have to have very difficult journeys or they revert to cars or taxis, which cost more money. I think that is a shame. Perhaps the Minister could say something about what we can do to ensure that there is better non-emergency transport for patients, either through better bus services or through other schemes. That, again, is one of the regrets we had in the Bus Services Act. I won an amendment here to delete that ridiculous clause about no more municipal bus companies, but then it was reversed. We never intended to have a stampede of bus companies, but it was a shame that councils could not now do something in little local areas to deal with the problems there.
I think my time is up, so I will cut my remarks there. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for securing this debate and allowing us to talk about buses and the hugely important role that they play in our transport system.
Buses connect our communities to the workplace and to vital public services such as healthcare and education. For many, particularly those in rural areas—which I think all noble Lords spoke about today—the bus is an absolute lifeline, as over half of those who rely on buses outside London do not have access to a car. They play a vital role in our economy, with some 4.5 billion journeys a year, and remain the most popular form of public transport, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, highlighted.
Under-21s make up a third of bus passengers, and the use of buses by older people is increasing as a result of the national concessionary pass. As all noble Lords have highlighted today, the picture of bus usage across the country is mixed. While bus patronage has increased in some areas, other areas have seen a significant decline in passenger numbers.
The benefits of a reliable and innovative bus service are clear: greater productivity, and communities that are connected rather than apart. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that heavy traffic makes buses less reliable, less prompt, more costly to run and more polluting—and obviously less attractive to use because of that. They operate along fixed routes and cannot use any alternatives. It is not really a good advertisement to use buses when you see one stuck in traffic.
What is the answer? The best answer is encouraging more people to use buses. It is still the best form of regular high-capacity transport that we have. Unlike rail, a bus can go virtually anywhere, and a bus service can be set up very quickly and at a fraction of the cost of rail. But buses need help to achieve this. One solution is to improve traffic in the key corridors used by buses, and one of the most effective ways is to give them priority over traffic. The sight of a bus cruising past lines of stationary cars or getting ahead of the queue at a junction is a much better advertisement and certainly sends a clear message to motorists. Priority measures offer good value for money, and we are funding many bus projects up and down the country through the Local Growth Fund. There are rapid transit schemes in Slough, Reading and Swindon and bus priority corridors in Manchester and Birmingham, which are genuinely innovative projects that are making a big difference in some of our busiest towns and cities. Busways, which provide dedicated corridors only to buses, such as in Cambridge and Luton, are also extremely effective and have the ridership to prove it.
The Government introduced the Bus Services Act 2017 to help local authorities and bus companies work together to make bus travel more attractive. Together they can identify congestion hotspots that disrupt bus journeys and, through partnership commitments, do something about them. Bus operators have to up their game by making using the bus an easier option. We discussed the secondary legislation relating to the Bus Services Act 2017 earlier this week. The Act contains a range of options to improve local bus services in England. In addition to franchising, there are new and improved options to allow local transport authorities to enter into partnership with their local bus operators to improve services for passengers.
Local authorities can provide bus priority measures or do other things to make buses more attractive. As the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, touched on, this can include reducing car-parking provision, increasing its cost or better enforcing existing parking restrictions, introducing park-and-ride schemes, altering traffic light phasing and establishing bus lanes. There are lots of tools. The Act also allows local bus operators to improve their services by introducing multi-operator smart ticketing, using more environmentally friendly vehicles and providing comprehensive timetable and fares information. The partnership can also co-ordinate bus timetables and ticketing with other modes, such as rail services, to provide a seamless journey.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned the bus open data powers in the Act, which will go further than the partnership provisions to require all bus operators in England to open up real-time route, timetable, fare and ticket information to passengers by 2020. Since the Bus Services Act came into force last year, around 30 local authorities up and down the country have expressed an interest and we are working with them to roll out the scheme.
On the bus services operators grant—BSOG—which many noble Lords mentioned, commercial bus operators receive 43% of their income from the public purse. Each year the department provides £250 million in direct revenue support for bus services in England via the BSOG. Of that, more than £40 million is paid directly to councils outside London to support buses that are not commercially viable but which they consider socially necessary. The rest goes to commercial bus operators. Without this support, fares would increase and marginal services would disappear. The BSOG is currently paid on the basis of fuel used, but we are looking at ways of reforming it to make it even more effective in supporting bus services.
On local authority funding, I fully appreciate that local authorities are making very difficult choices as a result of ongoing financial pressures. The right reverend Prelate and others were correct to point out that BSOG funding was reduced in the 2010 spending review. A decision was made to reduce it by 20% to reflect the economic climate of the time. Since 2012 the Government have continued to maintain the BSOG at current levels and we are very aware of the importance of bus services to local communities. In recognition of this, we were able to protect BSOG funding as part of the 2015 spending review. We are looking at reforming the way the BSOG is paid to make it more effective in supporting bus services.
Noble Lords mentioned the advantages of more young people using buses, and I entirely agree. The level of fares is a complex area. There is no statutory obligation to provide discounted travel to young people, and I am afraid there are no plans to introduce it. Many commercial and publicly funded reductions are available. We are working to deliver significantly discounted bus travel for apprentices to ensure that no young person is deterred from taking up an apprenticeship by travel costs. I listened with interest to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, about the National Citizen Service, which is an excellent programme. I will take that away and have a look at it.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, spoke about road user charging for vehicles as a solution to congestion. While I listened with interest, there are technical costs and privacy challenges and, not least, the importance of public acceptance of it, so I am afraid the Government have no plans to introduce such a road-pricing scheme. I am afraid there is more disappointment for the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, as the majority of English local authorities have taken on civil parking enforcement powers, but obviously not in the area in which the noble Lord lives. We think that CPE represents the most effective way for local authorities to manage and enforce parking. While we continue to support the rollout of CPE, we think it is up to each local authority to consider the financial and operational implications of taking on parking enforcement duties. For that reason, we let local authorities freely choose whether to apply for these powers, and have no plans to force the remaining non-CPE authorities to adopt them. But as I said, if they wish to do so, we will work with them. I am afraid I must also disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on the extension of civil enforcement powers to moving traffic offences, such as the yellow box. We have no plans to extend them. It is important to recognise that congestion has a wide range of causes. Obviously, there is that enforcement in London and Wales. Although we still have congestion here, we think there are better ways to address it and we are working on those.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans all raised the important issue of rural areas. The noble Baroness is quite correct that different areas have very different needs and expectations. Of course, extra pressures are placed on local authorities to provide services in more isolated areas. The Minister for Local Government is intending to increase support for the most sparsely populated rural areas by more than quadrupling the rural services delivery grant from £15.5 million to £65 million by 2019-20.
The right reverend Prelate also made the important point that bus services are relied on by many different groups in rural areas. It is important that the lack of provision does not further exacerbate any issues of loneliness. I will certainly go and see whether we can address the issue of transport.
Since this is International Women’s Day, we ought to note in this debate that bus passengers are much more likely to be women than men. There is an issue here not just of intergenerational fairness but of gender equality.
I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention. I was thinking about whether I could say something about women, given that it is International Women’s Day. I was not aware of that fact, so I thank her.
Providing transport solutions across wider geographical areas requires the effective use of all available options, whether it be traditional fixed-route bus services, community buses, dial-a-ride—as the noble Earl mentioned—or other services, such as social care or non-emergency patient transport. At present, the Government provide over £2 billion each year in funding for those services. That is spent by different bodies which are often providing transport for the same people at different times; for example, someone using non-emergency patient transport to get to a routine hospital appointment one day can be using a local dial-a-ride service to go shopping or visit friends the next day.
The funds do need to be spent in a more joined-up way. The noble Earl raised the issue of Total Transport. Two years ago, we launched our Total Transport pilot schemes across England to explore how councils, the NHS and other agencies can work together. The results of those pilot projects are still being analysed, but it is already clear that there is considerable further scope for public sector-funded transport to work together, whether it is provided by local authorities, community groups or the NHS. We will be publishing those results shortly.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked about lane-rental schemes. The Government have trialled lane-rental schemes, encouraging utilities to work together at weekends and in the evenings. There is good news: that has proved successful. We are now encouraging local authorities to set up schemes in other areas across England. We laid a statutory instrument last week with guidance for local authorities and I look forward to the impact that may have on congestion.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, asked about the environment. She is quite right that buses emit fewer air pollutants than the equivalent number of car journeys taken by road, but on urban routes, where the majority of buses operate, with the stop-start conditions, the slower speeds and the traffic, as we have discussed, there are obviously issues. That is why we are trying to clean up the bus fleet. As the noble Baroness recognised, we invest in green buses. There is more that we can do: we will shortly be publishing our strategy towards zero-emission vehicles. Emissions have not yet been calculated on a per-head basis, partly because that would impact on decisions on bus purchasing, and we want to encourage the purchase of clean buses. But we are looking at further developing our transport energy model, possibly including emissions per head.
There is no single solution that will work everywhere, but the Government have a commitment to local transport, and the powers in the Bus Services Act will help reverse the decline in bus use and drive up patronage. However, central government can go only so far to encourage bus use. Buses are not provided by the state: outside London, some 80% are provided by commercial bus operators. Most of the roads that buses use are the responsibility of local authorities. Much is in the hands of local politicians, local authorities and the bus operators themselves. We all need to work together to make sure that buses can provide an effective way of tackling congestion.
Again, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for introducing this debate. Buses are a key part of our transport system and perhaps we do not discuss them enough in your Lordships’ House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, often our emphasis is on rail. However, with the SI this week, the debate today and the Question on rural buses from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, I am pleased that we have been given the opportunity to do so. Very appropriately, after waiting so long for a debate on buses, we have now had three come along at once. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the Government are committed to maintaining and improving local and public transport in all areas, whether in the largest cities or the most rural villages.