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Bus Industry Support

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support the bus industry in England following the end of the current bus subsidy arrangements.

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

My Lords, on 17 February the Government announced that they will provide up to £80 million to extend the bus recovery grant until 30 June 2023. The department is evaluating the impact of this funding and working with local transport authorities and bus operators to develop sustainable solutions.

I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer, and I welcome the money that has been allocated. However, given that 80% of people who use buses have no alternative—in fact, in Northern Ireland, the community bus service has been completely cancelled from the end of April—is it not time for the Government to devolve the subsidy and funding of local bus services to local transport authorities to get a consistent and long-term service which will provide what people need and at a lower cost, and spread over the whole country the benefits that the Minister has provided?

I am not entirely sure that I follow the noble Lord’s thinking that, just by devolving it, the same amount of money will provide services at a lower cost. It is the case that local authorities get funding to support bus services, including from the fare cap, the bus recovery grant, BSOG and concessions. The simple answer here is that we have to make local transport authorities and bus operators work together more effectively.

My Lords, the Built Environment Committee noted in its report last year, which is yet to be debated, that without a continuation of the grant beyond March route mileage would fall by as much as 20%. Like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I am grateful to hear that the grant has continued. None the less, newspapers report that overall mileage has fallen by 10% up to only a couple of weeks ago. Does my noble friend the Minister consider this to be a satisfactory situation?

My noble friend is right that some routes have been changed and others have been reduced. It is the case that, if an operator wants to reduce a route, it must put in an application to the local transport authority, which has the ability then to subsidise or to tender that route. We have to establish a network which matches the revised passenger demand following the pandemic.

My Lords, the Campaign for Better Transport has done research which shows that, in the last two years, between this month and March 2021, when the Government launched their Bus Back Better campaign, there has been a 23% cut in bus services in England. Far from busing back better, the Government are actually presiding over the death of public transport in some areas. What are the Government planning to do to reverse this? Will the Minister commit today to the transformational reform of the bus service operators grant system, which is clearly not working?

I can absolutely say that the bus service operators grant will be reformed; reforms will be laid out later this year for consultation. On supporting services, we absolutely accept that we need to do what we can to provide a sustainable network which is fit for the future. That is why we have extended the funding and why we have the £2 bus fare cap. We need to evaluate that funding and the fare support to see what they have done to patronage.

My Lords, plans for a fantastic new zero-emission bus fleet in Stevenage and Milton Keynes, known as the ZEBRA project, came crashing down last week when private sector partner Arriva pulled out. Twice as many people use buses than trains, but buses need to be reliable to increase use, otherwise a vicious circle is created where passengers will not use them and operators will not run them. A new system giving communities a say on routes and fares is desperately needed. Will the Minister therefore produce the much-delayed bus strategy without any further delay and bring forward legislation, as my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, to devolve these powers across England?

I am not entirely aware of the strategy that the noble Baroness is talking about. We have a bus strategy and we absolutely stand by that strategy. We think that the elements within it work, but what we are dealing with at the moment—as indeed are many other transport modes—is a significant reduction in patronage. We therefore need to think about how we get the best value for money with the support that we can give, while also encouraging local transport operators to play their part.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. Bus usage has not gone back to the level that it was pre-pandemic; I think the figures at the end of March 2022 were 2.8 billion passengers as opposed to 4.1 billion passengers the year before the pandemic. Can my noble friend tell us what progress has been made with the announcement of the capping of bus fares nationally? Has that had an impact on usage? What are the longer-term plans for that cap?

My noble friend is absolutely right that the £2 bus fare cap is an important intervention for us to properly understand the relationship between bus fares and patronage. There are 140 operators over 4,700 routes that have taken up this bus fare cap and the Government are investing £135 million in it. We are evaluating it as we go along, and we will of course make public those findings as soon as we can.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that large parts of rural England no longer have a bus service and are dependent on community transport systems. In some areas, such as mine in Mid Suffolk, they have been set up in such a way that concessionary fares cannot be used on those services, nor do they qualify for the £2 bus fare cap. Can the Minister look at whether some sort of regulatory change might be in order so as to make sure that people who live in such areas are not disadvantaged?

The noble Baroness has written to me about this and I have responded. I cannot quite understand what might be going on in her area. It is fairly simple: if it is a Section 22 community transport service that is open to other people, concessions are allowed and the £2 bus fare applies. If it is a closed service under Section 19 that is not open to everybody then, rightly so, the national provisions do not apply. If she has any further information, I would be very happy to look into it.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, raised the question of the bus industry. This is an opportunity for us to congratulate the bus manufacturers of this country—whether Alexander Dennis in Scotland, Wrightbus in Northern Ireland or Optare in Yorkshire—which are producing world-leading buses and using the latest technology in hydrogen power as well as battery electrics to lead the world on behalf of this country. Can we congratulate them?

We can congratulate them; they do a fantastic job. Noble Lords will have seen that the Government announced £25 million of funding for zero-emission buses only recently—I believe that all the £25 million in funding went to Wrightbus in Northern Ireland, which has seen astonishing growth in jobs and skills and should be congratulated.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain what the future of concessionary bus fares will be? They are particularly important in rural areas.

We have seen a decline in the number of people using concessionary fares since the pandemic; certainly, those are the sorts of people who we want to get back on to buses. It is so important. We are reviewing a number of elements of the concessionary fare structure and, of particular importance to local transport authorities, we are looking at and will be consulting on the reimbursement guidance and calculator during the course of 2023 to ensure that local transport authorities are getting the money back from the system that they need to fully cover concessionary fares.

My Lords, seeing as we are considering public money for buses, will the Government consider the case in urban areas for switching to lightweight trams, which last for 20 years rather than 12 and, because they have steel wheels, do not emit toxic particulates from rubber? Most importantly, they run on biomethane, and the Government have a commitment to reduce by 30% the methane produced in this country by 2030.

The Government are a great supporter of trams. Indeed, much of the money that we gave to local metro mayors—about £5.7 billion, I think, in the CRSTS—is going to extending tram systems in their areas. Of course, for other local authorities, it is up to them to bring forward tram proposals, should they have them.