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Urban Transport: Future Funding

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 31 March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future funding of urban transport.

This is an important subject, Mr Sharma, and there is an awful lot to say about it. Looking around the Chamber, it looks like I have about an hour to say it in, although I will not take that amount of time. I have been interested in the subject for an awfully long time. I will cover buses and light rail, in particular looking at the mayoral combined authority areas. I thank the Urban Transport Group and the mayoral authority in the South Yorkshire region for their briefings.

Public transport is more important for certain groups in the population than for others, such as people on low incomes. An interesting figure, given that we sort of think that everyone has a car—these days, some families have several cars, looking at the parking challenges on some estates—is that, for those whose incomes are in the lowest quintile, 45% of families do not have access to a car. That is almost half of families in that quintile. Older people often do not drive anymore, and the concessionary fare scheme is important for them. The group that is sometimes forgotten about is young people. Young children can go with their parents, but when kids get into their teenage years, they want a bit of independence. They are either not old enough to drive or do not have a car, so public transport can be important for them as well.

What sort of journeys are involved? Public transport is important for all sorts of journeys, such as getting to work—again, particularly for young people in lower-paid jobs—and for people trying to find a job. Another interesting figure is that 77% of job seekers do not have access to a car and 85% of job seekers in the 18-to-24 age group do not have access to a car. To get a job, people need a good public transport system to reach the right place for an interview or whatever.

Public transport is important not just for work but for how people run their lives. Many people need transport to get to a shop, in which case they need it to be easily accessible, or to visit friends and family. I have talked to people about the fact that when a husband or wife goes into a care home after living together for years, they pick a care home on a bus route that they can get to. The problem comes when the bus route changes and they cannot get there anymore—that is another challenge. There are also people who normally use a car but want to go out for a meal or drink and to do it safely. Public transport is important in all those cases.

The Mayor of the Sheffield city region, Dan Jarvis—I pay credit to Dan, because he takes the issue particularly seriously and he will be stepping down in May—asked me to review bus services in Sheffield about three or four years ago. We set up a bus commission, and I got a number of local people, representatives of the public, the unions and the private sector, and national transport experts to look at the situation.

We saw a bus service that was basically in decline. It was a spiral of decline: services got cut, so few people used them, so more services got cut. It was a journey to the bottom, that is all. We had complaints about frequency, as services got less; about services being removed altogether at weekends and evenings; about lack of connectivity as people could get from A to B, but often had to go via C and D; and about frequent route changes. That takes us back to the problem of the elderly person in a care home or someone who has just got a job only to find six months later that the bus route that gets them there at 7 o’clock in the morning to start their shift disappears. Those are really frustrating things, and of course, reliability is a problem. As more people use their cars and there is more congestion, the reliability of public transport gets worse.

We made a lot of recommendations. I will not go into them all now, or I probably will be here for the next hour, but the essence of them was some quick wins, which the combined authority has brought in—such as a scheme of cheaper fares for young people to encourage them on to public transport and recognise the particular challenges for them over the last few years with covid and the effects of austerity beforehand—as well as the need to look ahead to enhanced partnership and a route through to franchising, if that was decided to be the best way forward. We appreciate the powers that Government have given to mayoral combined authorities, which we think should probably be extended automatically to other authorities to enable them to move to franchising if that is appropriate.

We also looked at funding, which is a major problem. We talk about levelling up, but figures show that Government spending on buses per head in London is £75, and in Sheffield it is £5. That is quite a big difference. Passenger numbers have changed over the past 10 years, with numbers in the Sheffield city region dropping from 150 million to 92 million—a 21% fall in 10 years. It is a spiral of cuts and inadequate funding to support buses. The Campaign for Better Transport has estimated that Government funding for buses in England fell by 43% in real terms over that 10-year period, so that is a big fall. A big difference between funding for London and for areas such as Sheffield creates major challenges with declining bus ridership, which, of course, means less income coming in to the operators, to which they respond with more cuts.

The bus review set out what we should do, then covid hit. I appreciate that covid has disrupted an awful lot, both at local and national level, and I say to the Minister that we welcome the Government support provided throughout that period. We would not have any bus services left without it, because at one point during the initial restrictions, passenger numbers dropped to 10% of what they were before covid. The support that has been provided, both for buses and for light rail, has been welcome.

Even now, passenger numbers on bus and light rail in the Sheffield city region are only back to 75% of what they were before covid, so 25% is still missing. That fall in passenger numbers is mainly down to older people still being concerned about travelling and the change in office working, with fewer people travelling into the office. The drop in Sheffield is actually bigger than the drop in, say, Doncaster, because there are more offices in Sheffield. We can see the figures. One question for the Minister is, what happens in September? We are looking at another cliff edge. If the covid funding, which is welcome, disappears—it has been given only until September—what happens? Those numbers will not to recover to 100% of what they were before covid, if at all—we do not know about office working and things—and certainly not by September. There are some really big challenges.

Bus passenger numbers were declining prior to covid and now we have an even lower number of passengers, so what is the funding requirement? Clearly, the amount of money that the Government will have to provide in order to even stabilise the system, not improve it, is greater now than it was before covid, because we are in a worse position. Areas with light rail systems have an even bigger challenge, because the fixed costs of light rail cannot be dispensed with. The network is there—the rails, the stations, the trams and everything else. The fixed costs are there, and if there is no recognition of that, not only will the sustainability of light rail become a major challenge but, if authorities keep their light rail systems running, they will have to cut their bus service funding even more, so there are real issues around that.

We welcome the concept of the Government’s Bus Back Better. It is a good phrase and there are some really good statements from the Government in the national bus strategy, such as

“we want main road services in cities and towns to run so often that you don’t need a timetable.”

I say tongue in cheek, Mr Sharma, that people will not need a timetable in some places soon because the situation is so serious that there will not be any buses to have a timetable for. It goes on:

“We want better services in the evenings and at weekends”.

Many places do not have them now, but the coming cuts, which I will say more about, will make the situation even worse.

The bus strategy is right that we need more buses and more passengers on buses, as well as

“dramatically increased passenger numbers, reduced congestion, carbon and pollution”.

Improving public transport and getting more people on to buses and light rail is good for congestion; for the climate change agenda, because the number of people on travelling on a bus is the same as the number in several cars so less carbon dioxide is emitted; and for pollution, because it means less nitrogen dioxide. We should not forget about NO2, the silent killer, which is more damaging to children than anyone else because it sinks and children breathe the air at a lower level. Those are real issues, and it is right that the Government have sought to focus on them.

I mentioned levelling up, and accessibility of public transport is a levelling-up issue. People with lower incomes and more poorly paid jobs tend to be concentrated to a greater extent in some of our urban areas, where levelling up is needed. The Government’s initial approach was to offer a £3 billion programme. Some of the money has come in through the sustainable transport scheme. The Sheffield city region has had £570 million, which is not all for buses. There is a bit for light rail and some for road schemes as well; I question how those schemes fall under the sustainable transport remit, but that was the bid that was put in and accepted. The city region has bid for £450 million from the bus service improvement plan. Will the Minister tell us how much money is left in the BSIP programme and when we will find out what has been allocated? We were told there was £3 billion but now we hear it will be only £1.2 billion or £1.3 billion because the Government have taken the money that they spent on covid support off the £3 billion. The total amount of money is the same, but the covid support has been taken off that meaning less than half the original amount is left for the BSIP programme.

I say to Ministers that we have to get away from the pots-of-money approach. We made that point to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who basically agreed with it, and to the Minister for Levelling Up—he got it as well—at the recent session of the Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Local authorities have 130 different pots of money, not just for transport, for which they have to make a bid to Government. That is ridiculous. We need to provide a more sustainable and joined-up approach to long-term funding.

Partnerships are happening in many areas. All MCAs have now moved to enhanced partnerships, as required by the Government in order to bid for BSIP and secure long-term funding. That is a good approach, but signing up to an agreement for partnership does not stop cuts being made. Bus operators, particularly First Bus in Sheffield, are already planning cuts in services, even with the enhanced partnerships and Government funding. Some have been announced in the last few months and more are proposed.

Operators have said that if Government funding stops in September, about a third of services will be cut. That is a massive, almost unimaginable number. It destroys the whole framework of the network, which we simply cannot allow to happen. Operators are looking at taking out some routes completely, removing evening and weekend services, where they exist, and reducing frequency, which will simply lead to another spiral of decline. I say to the Minister that whatever methods are used—enhanced partnerships, franchising or whatever—there cannot be any improvement from the current situation unless there is more money in the system. Without that, it simply will not work. Local councils are strapped for cash and they will not find those sorts of resources. There are challenges about whether Mayors should have a levy on council tax, which is worth discussing—that is what greater Manchester has done. However, in the end, the Government have to step up. It is no use giving London-type powers to urban areas outside London if they do not also have London-type resources. That is the real bottom line.

Light rail almost gets forgotten about. I do not know if anyone at the Department is really interested in light rail, as it does not seem to be mentioned very often. It is a clean, green form of transport. However, if we compare the light rail systems in our country with what is on offer in other European cities, we see that we are behind the game by many years. That is not a party political point; I put it on the record that we did not do enough as the Labour Government. We did not do enough on bus franchising either. None of that is party political; Governments have not recognised the importance of the subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), who is Opposition spokesperson today, will know that we had a good Supertram system developed in Sheffield and built at the beginning of the 1990s. I am almost tempted not to mention this, but I will: we approved it when I was leader of Sheffield City Council, many years ago, and I am really pleased about that. However, there has not been an extra mile laid since then. I am sorry—a few hundred yards have been laid for the Tram Train into Rotherham. Leeds, just up the road, is a major city but it does not have a light rail system. We are so far behind the curve. Manchester has done very well, with great credit due for that. One or two other cities have also started to develop systems, but overall there simply is not enough funding. Light rail needs Government support and the Government must decide if they want a long-term plan for capital investment in it.

I will mention the Tram Train again, because a pilot from Sheffield to Rotherham has been running for more than three years and is very successful. It is a great credit to the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) that, when the scheme was going pear shaped because of Network Rail’s incompetence—there is an National Audit Office report to prove that—he stepped in and said, “Yes, although the cost of the scheme has trebled, it is worth it to show that the system works.” It does work. It has been working in Karlsruhe in Germany for nearly 30 years and it is not surprising that light-rail vehicles can run on a heavy-rail system—it works.

What is the plan to roll light rail out across the country? We are looking at Beeching restoration services now; there is one from Sheffield to Barrow Hill, through my constituency. We are arguing very strongly for train stations at Beighton and Waverley in the Rotherham constituency next door, and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) is supporting the extension. Instead of running the heavy rail line into Sheffield Midland station, it should run into the centre of Sheffield with a Tram Train service. That would get people out of their cars and get rid of the congestion we get on the parkway going to Sheffield. We should use the heavy rail network, which is already there, to put trams on the system at no cost and to connect it better to our urban centres. That can be done all over the country. There are opportunities for that out in Stocksbridge, in the north of Sheffield, that we can look at as well.

There are real possibilities and challenges, but it comes down to how we will fund and deliver the Government’s agenda. I have a number of asks for the Minister. Will the Government set out their strategy for public transport in our urban areas? Developing on where we reached with the national bus strategy, are the Government still committed to those objectives in principle and will they set out a way to deliver them in the long term? If they are committed, will the Government set out how that should be funded? There is no use having grand ambitions about not having to look at a timetable for buses on the main road, or having great evening and weekend services, if there is no money. It is words and nothing else. Words are no help to someone waiting at a bus stop for a bus that may be coming in an hour’s time that either does not turn up or, if it does, it turns out that their connection to another place has been removed so they cannot get to where they want to go without an awful lot of effort. In the end, they will not bother going, or they will get in their car, get someone to give them a lift or get a taxi out of frustration.

If we are serious about this, we have to have clear funding commitments. Will responsibility for that now be given to local transport authorities? We have elected a mayor—will they be given the powers and resources to do this? It is absolutely clear from the levelling-up agenda that local mayors have to be able to join up their approach to transport with their approaches to home building, delivery of skills and industrial development. Areas need a joined-up approach to economic strategy.

Mayors can do it, but Government never will. It would require several Departments getting together. I remember going to Manchester and talking to business leaders some years ago, as Manchester was pioneering the move towards greater localism and local democracy. Business leaders said, “We don’t always agree with the councillors and council leaders, but at least we know where they are. We can go and talk to them. If they have the power to do something, we can have that discussion. If Government have the power, we have to go down and visit civil servants in more than one Department and hope that they might be talking to each other, which isn’t always the case.” Therefore devolution of those powers is absolutely key.

Will the Government speed up the franchising process? We have seen how long Manchester, which pioneered it, has taken to go through the process—Manchester is committed, but it has taken forever. It is better than the previous effort, in the Local Transport Act 2008, under which Nexus tried to get franchising in the north-east and was stopped in the courts. It is better than it was, but it is not as simple as it should be.

If the Government really want to give those powers, they should enable them to be used more speedily. As part of that funding commitment, will the Government estimate what it will cost to bring franchising in? There are significant upfront costs, which Manchester has already identified. If we are going to use franchising to improve services, there will be a cost. Franchising is not a magic bullet that once fired makes everything alright overnight. It is a good way to deliver bus services in a strategic, co-ordinated, organised and integrated way, but it is not cost-free. We ought to recognise that.

Let us have a plan for light rail. The Government need to seriously say that it is a way forward. It is a clean, green form of transport, and it should be linked to cleaner, greener buses as well. Although I did not need much reminding, the Minister reminded me that, alongside light rail, we need to have greener buses as a green form of transport—and not just electric buses, but green hydrogen buses. ITM Power in my constituency delivers the green hydrogen—there are different sorts of hydrogen—that is needed to power the bus fleets of the future. It is already doing the refuelling station for Birmingham’s hydrogen buses. We ought to encourage that across the country. I welcome the Government’s zero-emission bus regional areas, or ZEBRA, initiatives and the money being given for electric buses, but where is the commitment to a programme for hydrogen buses as well?

We need strategies for light rail and greener buses, but also tram-trains. We have a pilot that works—what is the point of a pilot unless we get encouragement to roll it out across the country? Many heavy rail networks are underused or, in some cases, unused. We do not have to redo the lines; they are there. We can run hybrid trams on them, so we do not necessarily have to install electric wires for all of them. They can be run partly on the electric system and partly on other fuels, once they get out into slightly less urban areas.

I hope I have indicated a lot of the challenges. There has been a real litany of problems—almost disasters—in the last few years, with decline and demoralisation in the sector. Covid has been a massive challenge, and the Government stepped up to the plate there. However, unless authorities are supported in the future, with a clear strategy from Government and commitments to long-term funding, we will be back here in two or three years’ time waging the same fight because the spiral of decline has continued; so many people in this country who rely on buses have been left without them; congestion has got worse; we have done nothing to tackle climate change; and we have done nothing to tackle pollution either.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) for securing today’s debate on a really important issue. I stayed down to make sure I spoke in this debate because it is such an important issue. I am sorry it has not had the support that it merits—perhaps Members are demob happy on the last day before recess. Nevertheless, the hon. Member managed to cover the whole range of issues in his speech, so he made up for the fact that nobody else is here to speak in the debate.

The hon. Member said that 45% of those in the lowest income quintile do not have access to a car, which is something we often forget. Outside London, that represents a real restriction on people’s mobility, freedom and opportunity to secure a job. He spoke about cheaper bus fares for young people. He might be interested to know that as of the start of this year people under the age of 22 can travel for free on buses in Scotland, which is an excellent new policy, not least because I have two daughters who can take advantage of that scheme and not have to be ferried around by mum and dad so much.

I do not plan to highlight too much more of the hon. Member’s speech, simply because he gave it just a second ago, but he did speak of the importance of devolving transport powers, which I will speak to.

Urban areas account for over half of the UK’s overall carbon dioxide emissions. If the UK Government are to meet their own target of reaching net zero by 2050, it is critical that towns and cities are equipped and funded properly to renew and transform their transport systems from the fossil fuel-based networks in place at the moment to zero emission and low-impact structures. Sadly, the Government’s record so far does not inspire confidence that that key part of the transition is a priority. The Minister, who in my opinion has one of the best jobs in government—I am quite jealous—has a hard task in being able to do the job properly and secure the required funding, because decarbonising transport is a mammoth task. I do not think she will enjoy much of my speech, so I give her that warning at the start, although she probably expected it.

Colleagues—certainly the Minister—will have heard me outline the Scottish Government’s transformational plans for active travel. I make no apologies for bringing them up again because they show the kind of ambition that is needed from the Department for Transport here in London. The active travel budget in Scotland will rise over the next three years to account for 10% of the overall transport budget, bringing the annual investment to at least £320 million a year—in UK terms, over £3 billion a year.

This year alone will see a 37% increase on last year, and within two years we will have seen a threefold increase in the active travel budget, representing £60 per person per year. The DFT’s plans amount to £2 billion over the next five years, which works out at just over £7 per person per year of active travel. The difference is utterly stark. Indeed, by 2024-25, Scotland, with less than a tenth of the population, will be within touching distance of what England spends on active travel. That represents a lack of ambition and an absence of vision. If we are serious about meeting net zero targets, we need game changers across society, and we need to ensure that in urban areas, where, in Scotland, 70% of our population lives, citizens are given real options for that change.

This is not just about the national and global picture. Members from nearly every constituency can see the tough time that our high streets are having. A combination of the pandemic, an increase in online shopping, and the hollowing out of household income over the last decade has left our town centres hanging by a thread. Supporting active travel and the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods in Scotland can also give a boost to town centres, encourage more local spending, and give local authorities a more sustainable income stream generated by flourishing local businesses. Buying and selling locally also helps to cut carbon emissions, creating a virtuous circle that gets even more bang for our bucks.

Active travel is key to that change, but on the evidence so far the ambition from the Treasury and the Department for Transport simply is not there. I genuinely hope to be proved wrong in that respect. As has been said already, buses are fundamental to urban transport. There are nearly 40,000 buses in use on Britain’s roads but they need to be replaced, not only as part of the switch to zero-emission vehicles but to provide a more attractive service to people considering changing from private transport.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have asked the Department for Transport for figures on buses, in particular how many of the 4,000 zero-emission buses promised through the ZEBRA scheme are actually on the road, transporting passengers and contributing today to reducing emissions. The Prime Minister promised those 4,000 buses by the end of this Parliament, which at the very most is less than three years away, although if we believe the chairman of the Conservative party it might be only a year down the road. At the current rate, however, there is zero chance that the Prime Minister’s pledge will be met and that simply is not good enough. It is letting down the residents of towns and cities across England yet again.

The truth is that six months after the Prime Minister made his pledge on 4,000 buses, the Scottish Government have got on with delivering. Their Scottish ultra-low emission bus scheme, or SULEBS, delivered 272 buses, and just four weeks ago the Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth, announced the first phase of the £62 million zero-emission bus challenge fund, or ScotZEB, for a further 276 buses. That is 548 buses delivered or ordered in Scotland, which is the equivalent of nearly 5,500 buses in England. To my mind, that is incredible progress given the challenges of the last few years and the budget pressures that have been forced on Scotland by Westminster.

Despite the long-awaited but very welcome recent announcement of the ZEBRA funding for 943 buses, which the Minister will probably touch on, that is—according to the Government’s own data on the website that accompanied that announcement—only 1,678 buses since the pledge was made. Scotland has delivered 327% more zero-emission buses in this Parliament than England and we are far from finished.

There should be no reason why the DFT is lagging so badly behind the Scottish Government. We have broadly the same goals; we both drive on the left. To my mind, therefore, something has gone badly wrong for the DFT, or perhaps, in fairness, more likely with the Treasury. I hope that the Minister will ask searching questions of her Department but she will more likely have to ask them of her Treasury colleagues, because at the moment the Government are just not delivering on the pledge that the Prime Minister made.

The situation in England is an indictment of the lack of urgency that seems to pervade the DFT’s attitude to the kind of transformational change that is required if the net zero targets, both in transport and more generally, are to be met at a UK level. That attitude has been perfectly demonstrated by the priority of the Treasury when it comes to funding local bus services; as has been mentioned, the Treasury’s priority has been to slash those services. The UK Government’s Bus Back Better strategy, complete with a fairly gushing foreword by the Prime Minister in which he boasted of his love of buses, might as well have been stuck in the shredder just months after it was published, because local authorities were told earlier this year that their budget pot would be slashed.

We know that urban areas are more dependent on public charging points for electric vehicles, which is down simply to the different balance of housing stock in more built-up areas. That situation requires local and national Government to raise their game to ramp up the installation of public chargers radically. I am pleased that Scotland is leading the way. Outside Greater London, we have the highest number of charging points per head of any part of these isles, including double the number of rapid chargers per capita that England has.

However, we cannot transition to a future without combustion engine vehicles by leaving flat-dwellers and anyone without a driveway with no route to switch to electric. In Scotland, 36% of people live in a flat, but in Edinburgh that figure rises to 64%, in Glasgow to 71% and in Dundee to 50%. That pattern is broadly similar across England and Wales. We cannot end the sale of carbon-fuelled cars in the coming years without making sure that urban areas have their public charging network properly designed and properly funded.

The National Infrastructure Commission review found that 300,000 public charging points were needed ahead of 2030. Currently, only 35,000 are in use. Norway, with a population only one twelfth that of the UK, has around 17,000, so we urgently need rapid expansion of the charging network if the NIC’s target is to be met, and that expansion is particularly needed in built-up areas.

The Transport Committee, of which I am a member, recently published its report on road pricing. It is clear that as internal combustion engines are phased out, a new way of collecting revenue will be needed, because fuel duty and vehicle excise duty will dwindle to zero under the current system. That sea change in financing, on which I think the debate is just beginning, must also apply to local and regional transport funding. Frankly, it is unacceptable that an organisation such as Transport for the North can see its core funding slashed by 35% at the whim of the DFT.

Local and regional authorities need long-term certainty in their funding streams and, given the types of capital-intensive work that they want to carry out, annual budgets cannot be turned on and off like a tap whenever the Treasury is feeling under the cosh. Urban renewal and the net zero transition are huge long-term projects, and the bodies responsible for delivering them on the ground need the long-term certainty on where the money to pay for them is coming from.

We saw that with the Tyne and Wear Metro, with nearly 40-year-old rolling stock replaced only when the Chancellor signed off on the funding. Up until that point, the transport authority could not be sure whether the trains—built when Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister—would be replaced any time soon. That is no way for transport investment to be carried out. Local authorities need certainty in the medium-to-long term on how the renewal investment will be funded—whether through raising revenue locally or national Government cash.

To conclude, as with so much that is sub-optimal in the UK, the over-centralisation of power through a single Government Department is hindering towns and cities across the country and our ability to meet the challenges of the coming decades. Getting the Treasury to release its grip and devolve power to towns, cities, metropolitan areas, and the devolved Administrations, is fundamental to allowing local decision makers to build the transport networks of the 21st century. The dead hand of Whitehall is holding millions of people back, and it is high time that the Government accepted that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), from a neighbouring constituency, on securing today’s important debate. I have seen his many years of campaigning on improving transport connectivity, particularly in Sheffield. I welcome the publication of his bus review, which he chaired for the Mayor of South Yorkshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). I will discuss that in further detail later.

I also thank all other hon. Members present for their contributions to today’s debate—so I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)! We also look forward to the Minister’s contribution, of course.

Our public transport network has suffered severely from 12 years of Conservative cuts. Our urban transport networks should be fuelling our post-pandemic recovery, but instead they are facing yet more cuts at a time when they should be investing in services.

First, on buses, in normal times, more journeys are taken by bus than by any other mode of public transport. They are critical to the economic prosperity and social wellbeing of our towns and cities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East states in his bus review:

“Buses are the backbone of Britain’s public transport system.”

However, under this Government, those vital transport links have been left to decay. Bus coverage is now at the lowest level in decades and communities have been left behind. Since 2010, we have lost a staggering 134 million miles of bus routes.

The Government finally published their long-awaited national bus strategy last March. That could have been a turning point, but instead was a missed opportunity to revolutionise the industry and lead the way on transport decarbonisation. On funding in particular, the Prime Minister pledged to

“level up buses across England towards London standards”,

and promised an extra £3 billion to fulfil that. However, we are already seeing the Government backtracking on that pledge. Leaked documents have shown that the budget for the transformation of buses has shrunk to just £1.4 billion for the next three years. Far from levelling-up, that means more services will inevitably be cut or reduced. Figures show that local authorities have already bid for over £7 billion from that fund. Once all local authorities submit bids, that figure could climb to above £9 billion, so I ask the Minister, why has only £1.4 billion been made available to them?

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East has identified a number of issues relating to bus services in South Yorkshire in his bus review. Those findings are also replicated up and down the country. For instance, he identified that bus miles in South Yorkshire have fallen by an average of 12% between 2010 and 2017 alone. He also highlighted issues of reliability, with over 60% of respondents saying they were dissatisfied with services in the region. That has culminated in passengers feeling isolated and being forced to take cars and taxis. Those modes of transport are not just more expensive in the midst of a cost of living crisis; they also work against our net zero ambitions.

Funding to decarbonise our transport network has fallen woefully short of the Government’s rhetoric. The Government talk a big game on this. In February 2020, the Prime Minister promised 4,000 new zero-emission buses by 2025—the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North has already focused on this issue—but this was also reiterated in the national bus strategy last year. However, let us take a closer look at the funding. The first round will make funding available for only 900 buses. Of new funding announced in last year’s Budget, only 335 buses have been accounted for. DFT has said it will provide further details on how £355 million of new funding will be used “in due course”, so perhaps the Minister could take this opportunity to provide those details or find them out from the appropriate Department. We have funding confirmed for only around 1,200 new buses. Can the Minister explain how these figures align with the Prime Minister’s pledge to deliver 4,000 more zero-emission buses on our roads?

I turn to another key pillar of our public transport network: our railways, which have fared no better than our buses in the last decade. The Government’s failures on improving rail services, particularly in the north of England, fly in the face of their levelling-up agenda. Transport for the North is set to lose 40% of its core funding in the next financial year, and services will undoubtedly suffer as a result. To compound the situation, the north of England has seen many rail projects scrapped in recent years—for example, plans for lines connecting Leeds and Manchester in the integrated rail plan were scrapped, along with the eastern leg of High Speed 2. Our railways must be at the heart of our covid recovery, but services still remain below pre-pandemic levels, despite all restrictions being lifted. Reports in The Times have said that timetables may never return to their pre-pandemic levels. Will the Minister deny that? If so, will she state when our rail services will get back to full operation?

The Government pay lip service to our public transport, without delivering the funding needed for the network to deliver. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East has gone into great detail on many issues that I have not been able to raise, but it is worth mentioning that former MP Tracy Brabin, who is now the Mayor of West Yorkshire, is really tackling these issues head-on. She is looking at public control and bringing in simpler fares, contactless ticketing and greener buses.

I want to finish by urging the Government to adhere to the excellent and eloquent request from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East for better buses—or whatever we call them these days. The overarching thing that all MPs want is to deliver on the transport needs of their constituents, and the Government really have to set out a proper, joined-up strategy, as my hon. Friend discussed earlier. They particularly need to look at the different pieces of the jigsaw, because transport is very complicated and can be a barrier to employment, but we know it can also give access to employment. My hon. Friend said that we have been given London-type powers, and now the Government have to commit to both a strategy and London-type resources for our cities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Sharma. It is also a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) because, as has already been said, his commitment to his area, and the work that he has done with the South Yorkshire bus review, really is commendable, particularly as there were around 5,900 respondents to the review. We very much appreciate the ambition for improving transport in his area, and particularly the commitment to public transport. He set out really effectively the challenges, benefits and opportunities, and I am certainly committed to creating a future transport system that works for everyone everywhere.

I note the envy expressed by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) of my role. I can only say that much of the work is devolved and I would welcome more collaborative working with him on this subject and particularly on decarbonisation and the future of transport, because the climate sees no boundaries. I am sure that, where Scotland is exceeding, we can learn lessons right across the UK, and that many lessons can be learned from other parts of the UK as well, so I reiterate that willingness to continue to work together.

We would also like to see safer streets, smoother journeys and better infrastructure to help create a cleaner, quieter, less congested transport system, and we recognise the part that public transport and active travel will play in that regard. Ahead are major environmental challenges that we need to meet head-on, as has been discussed, and we have set really high ambitions. They range from the Government’s commitment in 2019 to achieving net zero by 2050, through to the announcement in 2020 of the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars in recognition that that is where the bulk of emissions in the transport sector come from, the publication of the transport decarbonisation plan in July 2021 and, just last Friday, to put more flesh on the bones of that, the publication of our electric vehicle infrastructure strategy.

I think that we have covered the breadth of transport systems during this debate. Let me focus on buses and public transport. The pandemic has meant that travel demand across local transport networks has changed with the emergence of new travel patterns, while the sector is continuing to deal with the ongoing effects of the pandemic and financial challenges remain. The Government understand the importance of local transport networks. That is why we have supported the bus, tram and light rail sectors through a variety of emergency and recovery grants, totalling almost £2 billion. Furthermore, we have negotiated an extension to the current recovery funding packages, providing more than £150 million in extra support to the local transport sector.

In March 2021, we published England’s long-term national bus strategy, and we have set out a bold vision for bus services across the country. At the Budget, we announced £1.2 billion of dedicated funding for bus transformation deals, and that is part of £3 billion of new spend on buses over this Parliament. We will announce more details on how the funding will be allocated very soon. With regard to zero-emission buses, there are currently nearly 2,000 zero-emission buses on the roads, and we have £198 million to support 943 zero-emission buses.[Official Report, 21 April 2022, Vol. 712, c. 6MC.] We remain committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses, with more than £535 million of funding available in this Parliament to support climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and supply high-quality green jobs.

The hon. Member for Sheffield South East referenced what is happening in his community with ITM Power, one of the leading hydrogen providers. That is exactly what we are looking for for aviation, maritime and rail. For aspects of the transport system that cannot easily be electrified, we will be looking to hydrogen as one solution. I look forward to an upcoming visit to ITM. I would welcome his joining me on that visit.

I thank the Minister for that invitation. I am very hopeful that I can come with her on the visit. To go back to the £3 billion in improvement funding, she has just said that £1.2 billion, I think, will be allocated shortly. A ministerial “shortly” does not always happen very quickly, but anyway, it will be shortly. Is she therefore saying that the rest of the £3 billion has not been spent on the covid measures, that £1.8 billion is left and that authorities will be able to bid for that in the course of this Parliament?

Let me provide the exact detail on the millions and billions—how they have been allocated already and how they will be allocated—in much more detail in writing, because I do not want to get that wrong and I am not the Minister for buses. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me the time to provide a more detailed response, I will make sure we get it absolutely spot on.

I have set out our commitment to buses, but the hon. Gentleman has also referenced the importance of light rail, which is a lifeline for communities right across the UK and offers a particular advantage for decarbonisation as we look towards the future of transport. Later this year, I very much hope, we will bring in legislation that will provide further opportunities for self-driving vehicles and the future of transport using technology. During the pandemic, the Government allocated over £250 million in funding to support six light rail operators and local transport authorities in England outside of London. From April 2022, we will provide over £100 million of additional support to the bus, light rail and tram sector for six months—the trials that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There will be a decision imminently.

Imminently is shorter than “in due course”. I wish I could tell the hon. Gentleman today—[Interruption.] That was not a note confirming that I can tell him right now, sadly, but if he holds his patience a little while longer, we will be able to provide information on the total package of support and how much money will be available for light rail.

We have set out a wide range of ambitions and commitments across all modes of transport during this Parliament. The levelling-up fund, which is worth £4.8 billion for the UK, will invest in local transport infrastructure such as bypasses and other local road schemes, bus lanes and railway station upgrades. As a result of the 2021 spending review, successful bids from round 1 of the levelling-up fund will see £1.7 billion invested in 105 local infrastructure projects across the UK. That funding, which is to be spent by March 2025, includes over £77 million awarded to authorities across the north. For example, Liverpool city region will receive £37 million to deliver high-quality segregated walking and cycling routes in some of the region’s most deprived areas.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North also referenced active travel. I have to disagree with him; we are spending six times the amount of funding on dedicated cycling and walking infrastructure. The Prime Minister’s Gear Change plan is possibly one of the greatest health interventions that this Government have made. We have established Active Travel England; we are developing an interim board, and we will make sure that future cycle infrastructure aligns with LTN 1/20, to ensure that cycle infrastructure is fit for purpose and of the highest quality. That will be happening right across the country, making sure that it is as relevant for villages—which is important to me, because I live in one—as it is for towns and cities. The Prime Minister has set out his ambition that by 2030, half of all journeys in towns and cities will be walked or cycled. That is commendable, and I am delighted to be the Minister leading on that ambition with colleagues and partnerships right across the country.

The Department has recently published our integrated rail plan for the north and midlands, which sets out that £96 billion will be spent—the biggest ever single Government investment in Britain’s rail network. In January 2020, the Government pledged £500 million for the Restoring Your Railways Fund to start reopening lines and stations to reconnect smaller communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education. I have heard the request from the hon. Member for Sheffield South East that we consider light rail in some of these areas rather than heavy rail, and I know he has met with my colleague in the Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who is the rail Minister. We have heard those requests and they make a lot of sense.

I appreciate this is not the Minister’s area, but the rail Minister has helpfully agreed to meet me specifically about the Barrow Hill scheme. I wondered whether at some point the Department is going to publish a review of the Tram Train pilot and indicate how it sees it being rolled out across the country in general.

Absolutely. We would not do these pilots if they were not about learning lessons and publishing those lessons learned. The Government cannot do this on our own; we depend on our partners, our arm’s length bodies, our executive agencies, local authorities, local communities, businesses and, in particular, the private sector and transport operators to ensure that we get this right. I am absolutely confident that that will be the case. When I write to the hon. Gentleman, I will be sure to include the timeline I expect for that publication.

On city region sustainable transport settlements, we will deliver £5.7 billion of investment so that city regions can upgrade local transport to boost growth, level up and decarbonise transport, with £3 billion going to city regions across the north to support a number of transport interventions, including tram and light rail. Some £570 million has been allocated to the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority to improve schemes such as the renewal of the Supertram network across Sheffield and Rotherham.

I have already talked about the integrated rail plan, and I will reflect briefly on roads. The issue has not been discussed specifically in this debate, but we need to recognise that cyclists use roads, and that roads are fundamental to much of our decarbonisation, which is why we are to invest £24 billion in England’s strategic road network. That substantial package will benefit strategic roads around the country, including in the north.

On walking and cycling, I have already set out Active Travel England’s priorities, which are being drawn up, and the Prime Minister’s ambitions. Statistics show that 68% of journeys are less than five miles, which is why we have launched our ambitious plans to boost walking and cycling in England. For the 2021 spending review period, £710 million of new dedicated funding for walking and cycling was announced. That, taking other funding streams into account, delivers the £2 billion of funding for walking and cycling over this Parliament to which I referred.

As we invest in local infrastructure and make changes to the transport sector, we will work in partnership with local transport authorities and operators to achieve the best outcomes for all transport users. We are updating local transport plan guidance to support local transport authorities to bring their plans into line with Government priorities. The Department will publish additional guidance on quantifiable carbon reductions in local transport, in line with our commitments in the transport decarbonisation plan, to make that a fundamental part of local transport planning and funding.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North also discussed the charging network. In the electric vehicle infrastructure strategy, we referred to a revolution that will work for everyone, everywhere. We already have in excess of 30,000 public charge points in the UK, of which more than 5,400 are rapid. We have a plan to ensure that we will guarantee at least six rapid chargers in excess of 150 kW at all 114 motorway service areas in England. That is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of charge points already installed on driveways, with many more hundreds of thousands to come. We recognise that we need at least 10 times the number of charge points across the country to support the revolution from a fossil fuel transport system to a decarbonised one.

I did not talk about electric vehicles, as this debate is about public transport, but as the owner of one myself, I know the frustration of not having enough charge points to go to and therefore having to work out a route. The Minister mentioned rapid charging. When I get to a charging point, often it is not that rapid because the grid does not deliver sufficient power. It is a point I have raised with the Transport Secretary before, which he accepted. Will the Government take that up with the grid? Until it gets that right, someone can turn up to a charging point and find that charging takes three or four times as long as it should, which is incredibly frustrating.

I am delighted that the hon. Member has given me the opportunity to talk more about how we are rolling out the electric vehicle infrastructure strategy. It is not just about the number of chargers; we recognise that a broken charger is as much use as a chocolate fireguard. That is why we are mandating that there is open data, 99% reliability by charge point operators, transparent pricing, and the ability to pay by contactless, rather than having to download yet another app.

On generation and connection, we are working with Ofgem and identifying the ways in which we can secure reservations, particularly for motorway service areas, where we will need to future-proof with a “dig once” approach, particularly as we look forward to the introduction of heavy goods vehicles using battery-electric technology.

We recognise that we need a lot more chargers, particularly in areas outside of London. We recognise the need for reliability, which will be mandated for charge-point operators. We also recognise that people need to know where chargers are and when they are available. That is all being mandated, and we are bringing forward further legislation later this year.

We are working with Ofgem, National Grid, the distribution network operators across the country and, most importantly, local authorities, because they are our greatest partner in ensuring that a consistent charge point infrastructure is available for people who do not have driveways. We must be able to say, “No driveway is no problem”. That is why we have funds available for homeowners, businesses, local authorities, motorway service areas and purchasers, with plug-in grants across cars, vans and heavy goods vehicles. Our ambition is matched only by the financial incentivisation we are providing to people to make the most of the transition.

Like the Minister, I am more familiar with this matter than with buses—I am not a bus person. I want to ask about VAT rates on community charging. At the moment, it is just 5% VAT for people with a drive and 20% for people who charge their cars in the community. Not that I want the debate to go on much longer because I have a train to catch, but I have reservations about how community charging can be done. A lot of people I have spoken to say that chargers could probably be fitted into lamp posts. How will we do that on “Coronation Street”-type streets, where we are trying to discourage people from parking on pavements? Are people going to form a queue? Is there going to be a street brawl if someone has been parked next to a lamp post for a long time? I see chaos abounding if we do not get this right first time, so I welcome the Minister’s views on the matter.

That point requires a longer debate; I would welcome the opportunity to talk more about it. In the first instance, I recommend that the hon. Member look at our recently published electric vehicle infrastructure strategy, because much of how we will do that is in there. We are also working with pioneers and inventors; in this country, we have shown time and again that we are up for the challenge. This is a nation of innovation that is abundant with engineers who find solutions to some of the grand challenges that we face. I have every confidence that we will find solutions to these difficulties. Some of that is set out in the electric vehicle infrastructure strategy.

We are working with organisations such as Motability to ensure that we have an inclusive revolution that works for everyone, everywhere. Through the initiatives I have described, it is clear that we are supporting local areas to drive forward the improvements they need, while moving towards a greener and more prosperous future. This Government are determined to create a great, green transport network that is available to everyone, everywhere, and that spreads opportunity and prosperity to all.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield South East for allowing me the opportunity to respond to this interesting debate, in which Members from across the House have demonstrated the importance of public—and, indeed, all—transport.

I thank all three contributors to the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) and the Minister. It has been a good, wide-ranging debate that has gone further than my initial contribution, including a discussion of electric vehicles and active travel, which I did not mention but recognise the importance of. Of course, we also spoke about the rail challenges in Sheffield and the north in general, on which we could have several other debates if we had time.

There is recognition that public transport in urban areas is an essential lifeline for so many people, but it is also vital for the wider public in all our communities because it helps us to tackle the problem of congestion, the challenge of climate change and the real dangers of pollution; all three can be tackled by getting more people on public transport, improving the quality of public transport and making it greener.

I think there is general agreement on what the challenges are and on what, ideally, we would like to see done to meet them. The question that remains, as always, is: will the resources be made available to enable the necessary actions to be implemented? We have not addressed that challenge fully today, but I am sure it is one to which we will return in future debates.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future funding of urban transport.

Sitting suspended.