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Bus Services

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to encourage more people to use bus services.

My Lords, using buses can lead to less congestion, greater productivity and more connected communities. We are pioneering technology such as the bus open data digital service, which will give passengers the information they need to catch a bus with confidence. The Bus Services Act 2017 also enabled enhanced partnerships for buses. This means that local authorities and the bus operators in their area can work together to improve services.

My Lords, local authority funding cuts mean that they can no longer afford to subsidise many services, so we need to encourage more people to use the buses to make them commercially viable. Does the Minister agree that since young people now have to stay in school, education or training until the age of 18, it is grossly unfair to expect them to pay full fare as they have to in many areas from the age of 16? Does she agree that a nationwide scheme of concessionary fares up to and, hopefully, beyond the age of 18 would help to encourage young people to use the buses?

I have some good news for the noble Baroness. More than 50% of people use the bus twice or more a year but young people aged 17 to 20 use buses at a much higher rate—nearly 70%. I also point out that 71 of 89 travel concession areas already offer discounted fares to young people through the operators. Other discounts are available from local authorities and, of course, it is up to them to offer discounts in their areas.

My Lords, is it not time that the Government recognised that the bus service in London, which is cheap, reliable and effective should be rolled out across the whole country? That means having fares comparable with London ones, rather than about four times more. That is what it needs—money. All this new technology is wonderful but unless there is some money for services around the rest of the country, we are not going to get the changes to emissions and the pollution reductions that the Minister has referred to.

My Lords, the Government support public sector spending of £2.2 billion on buses—12% more in real terms than under the previous Labour Government. A significant amount of money is going into the buses. There is no one-size-fits-all solution—it cannot happen. For example, within the large conurbations, metro mayors can now use the franchising opportunities, and Transport for Greater Manchester will be doing that. In other areas, enhanced partnerships, where the local authority works with the bus operators, work well. In rural areas, there is also an awful lot we can do and the Government are committing funding to help them support their local bus services.

My Lords, how accessible does my noble friend the Minister believe the UK bus service to be for wheelchair users in terms of audio and visual announcements? What will the new technologies do to increase this accessibility?

I pay tribute to my noble friend for his long-standing interest in this area. I am pleased to be able to say that the consultation into the provision of audio and visual services, which we undertook in the summer of 2018, will report soon. We will also set out the next steps for making the regulations and publishing the guidance that will make sure that these audio and visual services are available across the country.

My Lords, can the Minister expand on what she said about rural access? There is no point trying to encourage people to use buses where there are none. In parts of my diocese in the north of Yorkshire, to suggest that there may be increased funding or increased conversations does not change the fact that many people are isolated. Buses and transport need to be part of a holistic, integrated rural strategy that sees the various matters interconnected.

I completely agree with the right reverend Prelate when he talks about transport being integrated. So often we think about one particular sort of transport system and do not think about how it integrates into the rest of the community. Turning back to his point about rural communities, it is a big challenge where you have isolated communities and it is not commercially viable to operate regular services into them. However, the Government have allocated £43 million from the Bus Services Operators Grant to rural local authorities. A particularly interesting project is the total transport pilot. It looks at rural communities that often have coaches, which might serve schools or take people to non-emergency doctors’ appointments, to see how we might also use them to help people to get around. These pilots are coming to an end and we will report on them soon.

My Lords, one very good way of finding a lot of money for more bus services is to do what the Welsh Government have just done and scrap all road-building schemes. They have just scrapped the M4 expansion because of cost and environmental destruction. How about taking their example and investing more in our bus services?

My Lords, I do not think that cancelling all road-building schemes would be beneficial to buses. One of the biggest barriers to entry for bus usage, which was identified by the Transport Select Committee, is reliability, and reliability is a function of congestion. For example, the Government are investing £2 billion in the Transforming Cities Fund. What these funds are trying to do with the six metro mayors and other city regions is to ease congestion, put in bus prioritisation schemes and make sure that the buses connect with other forms of transport. Cutting road building would not be beneficial but there is money available for people to improve their local infrastructure.

With eight areas in Wiltshire having breached harmful nitrogen dioxide levels, last week the Gazette and Herald local newspaper carried an editorial headed “More buses key to beating fumes”. It stated:

“Priority must be given to the pollution caused by heavy traffic”,

before concluding:

“A good start would be to ensure public transport is improved to such an extent that thousands upon thousands of private cars are left at home when they would otherwise have been belching fumes and contributing to an environmental disaster”.

In the light of the reduction by 46%, or £171 million, in spending by local authorities in England on supported bus services since 2010-11, with over 3,000 routes being reduced, altered or withdrawn largely as a result of the severe government squeeze on local authority finances, do the Government now agree with the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald editorial on the need to ensure that public transport is improved for environmental reasons?

I agree with the noble Lord that public transport needs to be improved for environmental reasons. That is why we need to take a cross-modal approach and look at all possible ways of improving it. He mentioned the environment, and we are cleaning up our bus services. Since 2010, we have committed £240 million to replace or upgrade buses—that is, 7,000 cleaner buses. At the moment, local authorities that have not succeeded in this have access to specific funds to make sure that they can get their dirty buses off the road and replace them with cleaner buses. Nowadays, nearly one in five buses is a low-emission vehicle.