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Bus Services: Covid-19 Emergency Funding

Volume 819: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2022


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to extend the COVID-19 emergency funding for local bus services beyond the end of March.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Berkeley, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, I am pleased to confirm that a final tranche of recovery funding for local transport providers, totalling over £150 million over six months, was announced earlier today. This builds on previous funding packages and will support transport operators and local authorities responsible for bus and light rail systems to transition their networks and adapt to new travel patterns as we build back better from the pandemic.

My Lords, would the Minister accept that that has rather ruined what would have been a coruscating supplementary on my part? Can I ask her whether she should congratulate my noble friend Lord Berkeley on his perception in tabling this Question in the first place, and can I tell her that this is the first time in nearly half a century that I have received such a positive response from any Minister in any Government? Perhaps I may ask her to be specific as far as the West Midlands is concerned. Can she offer some comfort to the West Midlands Combined Authority, which estimates a deficit of £50 million in its transport budget for the next financial year?

I am always grateful to receive a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, but today it was a particularly good one. We will be working with all the local transport authorities as they not only put in place their best service improvement plans, but also make best use of this funding. We have service levels running at approximately 90% while current patronage is approximately 77% and within that there are some quite significant regional variations. For example, we know that in the West Midlands people use buses more than elsewhere. Particularly with the Commonwealth Games coming up, we are very cognisant that we need to keep local transport running.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on today’s announcement and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Buses matter a great deal, especially to the elderly and to poorer travellers. Does my noble friend agree that we could do more with technology by drawing on best practice and smartphone ticketing to link buses and coaches to each other as well as to railway stations, trams and city centres, thereby improving value for money and making public transport more competitive?

My noble friend raises a very important point which is at the front of the mind of the department: how do we make the best use of technology? It is not necessarily for the Government to step in and develop the technology themselves. However, there are different ways that we see various app providers being able to integrate with multiple transport modes. What we can do is provide them with the data they need for their apps. This is why, a couple of years ago, we launched the bus open data service which puts information out there in an open fashion concerning, for example, routes, live locations of buses, and fares and ticketing systems—the latter can sometimes be very complicated. We hope to simplify that, and we think that the apps can help.

My Lords, today’s announcement is welcome. However, it would have been even more welcome a few weeks ago because the bus industry desperately needs to be able to plan ahead. Does the Minister accept that the industry faces a perfect storm of declining passenger numbers, rising costs and driver shortages? Uncertainty over government funding was an unnecessary additional factor in that. The industry says that it needs over £600 million in order to recover from the Covid situation before we look at the Bus Back Better plans. Does the Minister recognise that this figure is needed?

No, I do not. I have not heard the £600 million figure—that is a fair amount. However, I have had numerous conversations with the industry over the months and years during which I have been in post. Some may call it lobbying, and it is very welcome. We have good conversations, and we understand what the challenges are. About 18 months ago I received many questions in your Lordships’ House about how we were going to take into account changes in travel demand as we come out of the pandemic. That is exactly what we must do now. Not every area is going to be the same; there will be changes to patterns of travel. This money will help us to make this transition to what a new future looks like for the bus network.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register as chairman of Transport for the North. I welcome the announcement which my noble friend has made today. Will she also give some thought to bringing together all the different kinds of grants made to the bus industry—be it from her department or from the department for levelling up—to show the Government’s commitment to the industry, while also saying that we must move forward with best practice? We are already seeing that in many different cities across the country.

My noble friend is quite right. It is extraordinary how many different streams of funding go into the whole bus network system. This can be to the operators directly, or to local authorities—some of which comes from the Department for Transport and some from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I will respond to my noble friend with a letter which draws this all together. It is a substantial sum of money. Combined with some of the money we are putting into the infrastructure of major urban centres—for example, CRSTS—there is a lot of money going into buses, and we need to ensure that we make the best use of it.

Will the Minister confirm that none of the emergency support or recovery grants for buses has been taken out of the £3 billion for buses and bus services by 2025 announced under the Bus Back Better strategy, and that all the emergency support and recovery grants are in addition to that £3 billion?

The Government have committed to spend £3 billion over the course of this Parliament, so I suggest to the noble Lord that, when we get to the end of this Parliament, we do a totting up.

My Lords, are any funds for buses and trams on Tyneside being withheld until authorities north and south of the river agree to form a single authority?

Yes, there is the question of that; the Government are not withholding the CRSTS funding per se, but we need the governance arrangements to be put into place, such that we are able to distribute that funding to them. We believe that discussions are continuing well.

I am not sure of the latest figures, but it used to be that something like 70% of the funding for buses came from the public purse. Is it not time that we regulated the buses again to make sure that the taxpayer gets value for money?

To a certain extent, I think that is what we are doing, but perhaps not in the way that the noble Lord would expect. The requirement that we set out in the national bus strategy is that every single local transport authority has to have an enhanced partnership, which brings together the right people—the bus operators and local authorities. Managing it from Whitehall is definitely not going to work, but managing it from a local authority level, where local authorities can provide local services for local people in collaboration with bus operators, is what we are hoping to see. We know that the enhanced partnerships will be available in the early part of this year.

Will the Minister give us an estimate of when the majority of buses, particularly in city centres, will be decarbonised, running on hydrogen or electricity, so we can get away from these toxic fumes from large quantities of buses in city centres?

I agree with the noble Lord. The Government are absolutely committed to pump-priming the zero-emission bus sector. We have £525 million in the kitty to deliver new zero-emission buses. The noble Lord will have seen that the order for Coventry has gone in for 130 buses, and we have announced £71 million for five other areas, for 335 buses, and the orders will go in very soon. But what is the point of all this money—and it is an astonishing amount of money? It is such that we develop the market so that the economics mean that for a bus operator it makes sense to choose a zero-emission bus in future, because it is cheaper and more reliable and provides the level of service that we would expect.

Do the Government believe that they have got value for money from the very large grants to Transport for London, given the utter chaos today, which has been met with something of a shrug? Buses are unable to move because of many unnecessary cycle lanes, London is generally in a very poor state—and no one appears to care.

My Lords, this Government really do care about what is happening in London. I think that the strike today is unnecessary; it is self-defeating and will damage the job prospects of those who currently are working in what is, in general terms, an excellent transport system. The most recent deal that we did with Transport for London set out very clearly our expectations of the Mayor of London, given his oversight of TfL, to bring forward its modernisation programme, which totals £730 million, but also to look for further savings of around £400 million. That is a lot of money. How was Transport for London allowed to build up such fat?