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Bus Services

Volume 829: debated on Thursday 30 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of trends in the provision of bus services in England since 2019.

My Lords, Covid-19 resulted in significant reductions to passenger numbers and bus service levels. To mitigate that, the Government have provided over £2 billion in emergency and recovery funding to keep vital bus services running. On 9 February we announced a further extension of that support until 30 June. As a result, bus service provision in England outside London remained at over 85% of pre-Covid levels in 2021-22.

My Lords, last week two separate zero-emission buses projects, in Milton Keynes and Stevenage, collapsed when the private sector partner, Arriva, pulled out, saying it was because passenger numbers had not recovered after the pandemic. What specific assessment have the Government done of the reasons for the 18% drop in passenger numbers since the pandemic? What more can be done to encourage the private sector to participate in these zero-emission pilots?

My Lords, it is very disappointing that Arriva decided it was no longer willing to take part in those projects. Other bus operators are taking part in projects elsewhere in the country, and indeed Arriva itself is still participating in other separate zero-emission buses projects. Essentially, we very much hope that it will come back to the table once, and if, passenger numbers increase.

The reduction in passenger numbers is related to changes to concessionary travel and to people going to work and working from home. We believe that we have stabilised at this point, and now we look forward to bussing back better.

My Lords, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my registered interest as chairman of Transport for the North. May I ask my noble friend to give some long-term assurance on the amount of support we are giving to bus companies? What has been done has been very welcome, but there is uncertainty about what will happen after 30 June, and buses are needed as a reliable form of public transport for our country.

I absolutely accept what my noble friend is saying. From the Government’s perspective, we have had to see what happens to patronage and where service levels have ended up, given the current levels of support. We are also looking at the impact of the £2 bus fare cap. All these things are going into our analysis of what we may be able to do to support the bus sector after 30 June.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that what is called for is regulation, and that if we reintroduce it right across the board and give those powers back to local authorities, they will be far more efficient in their use of bus resources?

I keep hearing this from the Labour Party, and I am not entirely sure which regulations and powers Labour is proposing to give back to local transport authorities. As the noble Lord well knows, at the moment, local transport authorities are required to produce an enhanced partnership, which is between them and the bus operators. If they do not want to do that, they can take all the powers they want and franchise the whole system.

My Lords, will my noble friend be issuing guidance to plumbers and electricians on how to carry their tools and equipment on a bus, especially in outer London, since the Mayor of London appears determined to deprive them of their vans?

Questions is fun today, isn’t it? The Government will not be issuing guidance to plumbers and electricians, on the basis that they probably know how to carry their tools. We are looking with great interest at the Mayor of London’s proposed extension of ULEZ. I would also point out that he announced—yesterday, I think—something called the Superloop for outer London, which sounded very new. However, I checked and in my area that includes the existing X26, so the Superloop involves quite a substantial amount of rebranding, as often happens with the Mayor of London.

Does the Minister accept that there is an urgent need for reform of bus service funding and an end to this hand-to-mouth approach caused by the short timescales for Department for Transport decision-making? Does she also accept that any new funding mechanism should be based not on competitive bids but on greater devolution and less interference from the Department for Transport?

I believe I have already addressed the point about the short-term nature of the funding. I agree it is not ideal; however, it has been necessary as the whole system has transitioned. I reassure the noble Baroness that we will also be looking at BSOG reform this year. To remind noble Lords, this is a very important amount of money: some £250 million goes into the sector, which keeps bus fares low, but we have to make sure that it also supports net zero. There are all sorts of different things we can do with bus funding. In 2021-22, 57% of all income for the bus sector came from central and local government.

My Lords, many people rely on buses to get to work, especially in cities, including, of course, disabled people. Given the urgent need to close the disability employment gap, which continues to be at a high of around 30%, what assessment have the Government made of the impact on disabled people’s ability to get to work in light of the trends in the provision of bus services?

As we set out in our long-term national bus strategy, ensuring the safe and comfortable movement of all people on buses, including those with accessibility issues, is an absolute priority. I will take back to the department my noble friend’s specific question about disabled people. In a similar vein, it is also worth mentioning some further good news: the accessibility information regulations should be laid today, which, I am sure, many noble Lords will welcome.

My Lords, I wonder if the Minister would be kind enough to go back to the department for me and then drop me a line on the appalling treatment of the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority in respect of central government funding. It is a mystery to all of us how the Government can talk about better buses when buses are actually disappearing.

We asked all local transport authorities to prepare bus service improvement plans; some were better than others, and the best ones were given funding. Regarding the ones that were not so good, we supported the local transport authorities by providing them with revenue support so they could upskill their staff and improve their BSIPs for the future. I believe that is what happened in South Yorkshire, and I very much hope it has been able to use the money we gave it successfully.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of the importance to rural bus services of concessionary bus fares. What will the future of these fares be after June?

We are not planning any changes to the levels of concessionary bus fares, but we are looking closely at the implementation of the concessionary fares scheme. Over the course of 2023 we will look closely at the reimbursement guidance and the calculator to make sure that bus operators are getting the correct amount of money for the people they carry.

My Lords, the statutory concessionary bus fare scheme provides free travel for pensioners and disabled people from 9.30 am to 11 pm Monday to Friday, and at any time on weekends and public holidays. Given the change in use patterns, that people needing to get to medical appointments often have to travel before 9.30 am, and that many older people—including someone I was talking to in Liverpool at the weekend—are providing childcare that enables other members of their family to work, should that statutory concession not operate 24 hours a day on weekdays as well?

My Lords, we have looked at the concessionary scheme and we have no plans to change it at this time. However, I remind the noble Baroness that the £2 fare cap is currently in place, and that will benefit those who are not able to use the scheme early in the morning.

My Lords, my understanding is that when a bus is cancelled at very short notice, often because of congestion, that data is not filtering through in real time to Google Maps or any of the national APIs. This makes it very difficult for people to plan their journeys and has an impact on economic productivity. Will the Minister look into this and see what can be done to put it right?

I will happily take that back to the department. The Government set up the bus open data service a few years ago now, and for the first time we were able to consolidate all the information from the bus operators and make great strides towards providing the real-time information that passengers need. But I will certainly take that point back to the department to make sure we are considering it.