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Bus Services: Blaydon

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julie Marson.)

I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate on bus services in my constituency of Blaydon, although I have to say that I am very disappointed that it is necessary. May I also welcome the Minister and my constituency neighbour to his place on the Front Bench?

Bus services are hugely important to communities across my constituency—from Chopwell and Blackhall Mill, Greenside to Blaydon, Birtley to Kibblesworth, and all the points in between. I know that, whenever changes are proposed to bus services, my office will receive very many phone calls, emails and Facebook comments about the changes.

This time, though, it has been of an altogether different order. There is just one bus company running in my constituency, Go North East. When it started its consultation on cuts to its bus services in May, the implications for my constituents were dreadful. The proposals cut off whole communities, such as Kibblesworth in the east of my constituency, dramatically reduced services to places such as Birtley, and ended popular routes around places like Winlaton, and even the route 69 to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead. I am sure the Minister knows of the problems with the Red Kite route from the Metrocentre to Chopwell and Blackhall Mill, through to Consett in the Minister’s own constituency.

It goes without saying, I hope, that when Go North East made this announcement in May, I began to work with all parties to ensure that communities in my constituency would not be left isolated and without bus services. The village of Kibblesworth is just 5 miles from the centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. What kind of position would we be in if such places had no local bus transport? Working with the public and helping to engage in the consultation, I had several meetings with Go North East and with Nexus, our local transport authority for Tyne and Wear. With the help of the public, and with Nexus, we were able to ensure that we could keep essential bus services through local public spending, but, sadly, we have lost many routes and face reduced timetables, resulting in overcrowded buses. The fact is that even those bus services, with support from Nexus, do not meet all the needs of my constituents, and I fear that there are yet more changes to come.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate and echo what she says about bus services. In the north-west of North Tyneside, Arriva has cut the 43, the 44 and the 45—and now it is not only cutting but cancelling the buses it has cut. Surely people in North Tyneside and in Blaydon deserve better from our bus companies?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Indeed, there are a number of bus companies across the region, but I speak just of my constituency.

I am a bus user myself, in my constituency of Blaydon and here in London, and I have experienced the difficulties of bus cancellations. Only this week I nearly missed my connecting train to Parliament as the bus did not show up as expected. That is not just my experience, but that of many of my constituents.

Leigh has told me of her difficulties getting to work in the morning, with buses not turning up and, when they do, being overcrowded due to earlier cancellations. She told me that over recent months she has constantly been late for work as a direct result of instability in the local buses. Being late can mean deductions from pay for some workers and a poor work record to boot. Another constituent who has been in touch told me that he missed a hospital appointment, and another said that her son missed football training just this month due to buses not showing up.

Another constituent recently told me about needing to spend £15 on a taxi to get to a dental appointment as the bus was not running in time to make the appointment. The day after, they needed to spend a further £11.80 on another taxi as there was no bus to take them to hospital for an eye appointment. I am sure we can all agree that that is not good enough, and people across Blaydon, the north-east and, I suspect, the whole of England deserve a regular, reliable and affordable bus service to help them to get on with their daily lives. I could replicate those examples many times, as I am sure hon. Members will know.

I know that the bus operators are not causing problems for fun. I know that covid-19 led to restrictions on bus services and that even now many people are reluctant to use buses, despite measures taken to make them covid secure and encouragement from public health specialists to use active transport, including buses. I pay tribute to the bus drivers and other transport staff who did a great job during covid, facing difficult situations and putting themselves at risk in the early days. I want to make clear that I very much support them.

In the north-east, our bus patronage figures are better than those in some areas, but they are consistently still down to around 80% of pre-covid levels, which has had a real impact on the income of bus operators. Given that the bus operators are private companies, lower usage can make buses not viable. The Government did help during covid with the bus recovery grant, but that is due to end completely in March 2023. Sadly, the after-effects of covid on the industry will not have ended by then.

Probably one of the biggest causes of problems for my constituents is last-minute cancellations. I know that the Minister will also be familiar with that issue. For those who rely on buses, a last-minute cancellation of a bus or a route at a particular time can lead to very real problems in missing work or appointments, or just plain getting home from a night out. If we want—as we all do—to encourage greener transport as part of the effort to reduce carbon consumption, we need reliable, regular and affordable bus services. That environmental impact is a real issue. We need to reduce our car usage, not increase it because people do not think they can rely on bus services.

Other issues have emerged that the Government and the Department for Transport specifically can help with. Although I speak on behalf of my constituents, the issues I mention are replicated in many parts of the country. Bus companies face huge difficulties in recruitment. High driver turnover has plagued the sector in recent months and years, along with high levels of sickness, due to unprecedented backlogs in the NHS, and delays in driver licensing. All of those things have contributed to a growing problem of short-notice cancellations. That, in turn, is doing irreparable damage to the reliability and punctuality of bus services. That has a huge impact on the travelling public, with the latest bus punctuality figures standing at 83%, compared with the 95% target that the traffic commissioner set. That is directly impacting the lives of my constituents, causing the problems that I outlined with people missing appointments, being late for school and being unable to visit family and friends or even do the shopping.

My constituents need better bus services, and I am sure I would not be the only MP saying that if there were others here. In the north-east, the seven local authorities that work as Transport North East have come together to respond to the Government’s proposals for bus service improvement plans under the bus back better badge. The local transport authorities, working together and talking to the bus companies in our area, submitted plans for enhanced partnerships that are intended to deliver the aspiration for bus services that cover the routes that people need when they need them, with buses turning up on time and being affordable, and for what I believe are called multimodal, multi-operator fare schemes, which are very much like what we have in London, where passengers can just turn up and get a bus to where they need to be for work, health or leisure.

As the Minister will know, our bid was successful, although sadly at a lower level than we had hoped, with an indicative funding allocation of £163 million. That was last April, but we are yet to have confirmation that the north-east will actually receive that money and, if so, when. That is holding up much of the work on developing those enhanced partnerships—although work is going on between the parties—which would go some way to improving our bus services, bus fares and cross-operator arrangements and to reducing congestion, which also causes problems for bus reliability and which has been made much worse by more people choosing to drive rather than take the bus. So can the Minister please tell me tonight when that bus service improvement plan funding will be confirmed and when it will be released?

I spoke earlier of the bus recovery grant. Although I am glad that it was extended, albeit at a lower rate, we really need it to be extended further if we are not to see even further decline in bus services. We cannot afford to have a cliff edge and a huge drop between bus service improvement plan funding and the current arrangements. I ask the Minister to offer an assurance that the grant will continue and to press the Treasury on that matter.

There is also the issue of driver recruitment. Last year, the Government took some action over the shortage of HGV drivers. It is now time—beyond time, actually—to take real steps to assist with bus driver recruitment and retention. We need to tackle this issue if we are to retain essential bus services. I would be glad to hear the Minister’s proposals on that issue.

There is one more issue I would like to raise, and that is the future of zero-emission bus regional areas funding. I very much hope that the Minister can tell us that that funding will continue. Unless more ZEBRA funding is made available, the Government will not hit their target of getting 4,000 zero-emission buses ordered nationwide by the end of this Parliament, given that the current total is only 1,000 so far.

I want a bold transport plan for my constituency, for the region and for the country—one that improves our bus offer for communities, one that improves fares for my constituents instead of making them more expensive, and one that improves the reliability of local buses and does not frustrate customers. To achieve that bold plan, and for my constituents to benefit, we need the Department for Transport to come forward with clear answers and to allow our local organisations to do what they are so good at: delivering local transport offers that help people in their daily lives. Without those answers, I fear that we will continue to see our bus offer dwindle, patronage levels drop and working people—my constituents—suffer.

Madam Deputy Speaker, could you pass on my thanks to the Speaker for his kind letter following my appointment to this role? This is the first time I have spoken from the Dispatch Box, and I am delighted that it is in an Adjournment debate with the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who is my neighbour just to the north. I congratulate her on securing a debate about this vital issue and on the spirit in which she has spoken today.

The hon. Lady works hard to raise the issues that matter most to her and her constituents, and that is why, before focusing on the subject of this debate, I want to take a moment to commend her for her campaign on mental health and suicide prevention, which is a vital matter, particularly for our region. I know that she has spoken candidly and eloquently about it in the Chamber. While we sometimes disagree, we are often in agreement, such as on the European Statutory Instruments Committee of which we were both members for quite a while. I will hopefully be able to show some of that agreement tonight as I go through my speech.

Turning to bus services in Blaydon, I am acutely aware of the issues of which the hon. Lady speaks, because routes such as the 47, X46 and X71 go through my constituency and into hers. We have to work together with leaders from across the north-east to try to address transport issues, and the leader of Gateshead Council, Martin Gannon and I have worked closely, particularly during the pandemic, on the issues facing local transport services. I hope to be able to give the hon. Lady a little more clarity on what is coming forward, particularly on the bus service improvement plan. I fully understand and appreciate the hon. Lady’s concerns. In fact, I would probably be raising them myself had I not been moved to the Front Bench. I assure her that my officials have been in contact with Go North East in advance of this debate to understand further the issues specific to her constituency and across the wider north-east.

The Government are clear that we want public transport to be integral to the future of transportation across the country. Transport networks, and local bus services in particular, are vital to ensuring that communities can stay connected, supporting so many industries and getting employees to work, and to the broader levelling-up agenda. That has never been more important as we seek to recover from the global pandemic. After all, buses are the country’s favourite mode of transport, with more than 4 billion journeys made in 2019—twice as much as the next form of transport.

Turning to the hon. Lady’s points, I will start with BSIPs and then move on to environmental factors, low emission buses, the recovery fund, short-notice cancellations, driver shortages, and ZEBRA funding. On the broader national bus strategy and BSIPs, the Government have committed to investing over £3 billion in this Parliament to deliver improvements to bus services throughout the country. It is one of the largest investments in buses in recent years, and we are on track to meet that commitment, having already allocated £2.5 billion.

Our national bus strategy, published in 2021, sets out how we intend to deliver better bus services for passengers around the country through ambitious and far-reaching reform of how services are planned and delivered. The NBS is explicit about seeking to ensure that the needs of small towns and rural transport users are given equal consideration to those in urban environments and is supportive of improved connectivity and availability of services in rural areas. To deliver improvements around the country, in urban and rural areas, the strategy sets out how our work will fundamentally change the relationship between local authorities and bus operators. Crucially, we want to ensure that local authorities have a pivotal role, working with bus operators, to ensure the provision of bus networks that meet the needs of the local communities they serve.

As a first step, the Government asked every local authority to work with their bus operators to develop a clear, detailed, and ambitious local bus service improvement plan. BSIPs are intended to set out each local authority’s vision for improving bus services in their area over the long term, and to act as a guide to help design local transport networks that are tailor-made for the communities they serve, particularly when it comes to cutting fares and journey times and increasing frequency. In April, after assessing each of the plans, we were pleased to be able to offer indicative funding allocations to support 31 BSIPs totalling over £1 billion in both rural and urban areas.

The hon. Member for Blaydon welcomed the £163 million allocated to the North East and North of Tyne Combined Authorities. We have now confirmed final allocations for the vast majority of local transport authorities that have been selected to receive funding to deliver their BSIPs. The Department for Transport has been clear that BSIP funding is conditional on the submission and implementation of a transformational enhanced partnership or franchising arrangement. We are working with Transport North East on developing their enhanced partnership with a view to delivering funding once we are satisfied that it is in place. I assure the hon. Lady that that will happen in the not-too-distant future, and I will be delighted to write to her when it happens and maybe even come to her constituency to launch it in the next few months.

The hon. Lady also mentioned zero-emission buses and levelling up, which are important, particularly in towns that have had diesel buses causing air pollution for too long. The Government are clear that buses have an essential role to play in achieving net zero, driving the green transformation and creating cleaner and healthier places to live. We have supported bus companies in the north-east to introduce net zero buses.

Between 2019 and 2021, Go North East was awarded just under £3 million through the ultra low emission bus scheme for 18 net zero buses and associated charging infrastructure to operate within the Tyne and Wear region. The national bus strategy further committed to introduce 4,000 zero-emission buses and achieve an all-zero-emission bus fleet. That will support our climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and deliver higher air quality and green jobs in places such as Falkirk and Scarborough. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill), who is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the bus and coach industry, has already been banging on my door about delivering those jobs in the UK. On my first visit today, to the Euro Bus expo in Birmingham, I saw that there are great opportunities for the UK.

We are making good progress. Since February 2020, we have provided funding to support 2,400 zero-emission buses in England. Our zero-emission bus regional areas scheme has given local authorities nearly £270 million in funding for zero-emission buses and infrastructure. Several buses funded by ZEBRA have already been ordered, including 193 by First Bus, which is the largest single order for electric buses in the UK outside London. I also saw some of the ones that Liverpool has ordered for its metro system today.

I am aware, however, that although 4,000 buses is a good starting point—some of those are still to come—it is only a starting point. We need to go further and faster to decarbonise the whole bus fleet across the whole country. That is why in March, the Government launched a consultation to help to set the legal end date for the sale of new non-zero-emission buses at some point between 2025 and 2032. We will confirm that exact date in due course. We have also launched calls for evidence to decarbonise coaches and minibuses—minibuses are actually one of the big issues.

I am much enjoying my hon. Friend’s debut at the Dispatch Box. Having worked with him previously in the Department for Transport, I know that he is a great champion for buses.

I want to confirm everything that I have just heard. My hon. Friend said that the zero-emission bus roll-out, which has been so successful, is not just for the north-east but for the whole country. Perhaps he will take the opportunity, if he wants to visit the leading low-emission town in the country, to visit Harrogate early in his agenda.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I would be delighted to visit Harrogate at the earliest opportunity, and I hope that he will take me to Bettys tearoom as part of that.

Can the Minister confirm that the ZEBRA funding will continue in future? There are concerns about that.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. My understanding is that it is all there. Obviously, the financial statement will happen in a couple of weeks, but my understanding is that, as of this moment, the bus funding is there and there is more to hit that target of 4,000 buses in future.

To return to my previous point about phasing out and how we will deliver things more generally, agreeing a phase-out date will not just boost the transition to clean buses, but create new skilled jobs as operators and manufactures will have greater certainty to invest. The hon. Lady will know from Nissan, which is just down the road and where many of our constituents work, how transformational the end date for car manufacturers has been. Hopefully, we will have the same when bus manufacturers move in that direction. A further £205 million of dedicated zero-emission bus funding is available this Parliament, which will keep up the momentum. The Department will provide more information on how that funding will be allocated in due course.

I acknowledge that a bid for round two of the levelling-up fund has been received from Transport North East to support zero-emission buses in the region. However, as I hope hon. Members will appreciate, given that the fund is a UK-wide competition and is currently in the assessment stage led by officials, it would not be appropriate for me to comment or express a view on bids at this stage. I wish all areas great luck in realising their local visions.

On service withdrawals and funding recovery, the hon. Lady made an important point. This has been a really difficult time for the bus sector, and we have had to provide unprecedented levels of support for operators—nearly £2 billion since March 2020—to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. The funding was due to end in October. However, while patronage on buses has stabilised at about the 80% figure the hon. Lady gave, and it is steadily increasing, it is still below pre-pandemic levels. That is why in August we brought forward an extra six-month, £130 million extension to that support until the end of March. We will have to see about allocations for the future, but I think we all hope that bus services will actually recover. We have seen that on off-peak services, but not on peak services yet.

I thank the Minister for those comments. I think the concern is that there will be a gap between the BSIP funding and the current allocation. That will be a real problem in our constituencies, with further services being cancelled, and I know my constituents are really concerned.

I totally understand the hon. Lady’s concern, but I think we will have to wait for the financial statement to see whether there is anything further in that field. As I have said, however, I hope the BSIP funding will be coming through in the not-too-distant future in advance of that time—by the end of March.

I know that Nexus has been allocated nearly £13 million since March 2020 to help protect bus services in the north-east until December this year, in addition to the recovery funding we have provided directly to operators to keep things running. Over the long term, however, we are clear that the cycle of short-term recovery funding packages cannot continue indefinitely, and that is why we are looking at longer-term packages, including new arrangements between local authorities, whether franchising or closer working arrangements.

Driver shortages have been experienced in many different parts of the country recently. We have already increased the capacity for vocational driving tests, including through the recruitment of additional driving examiners, to make it easier for operators to recruit and train bus and coach drivers up and down the country. We continue to engage with the bus and coach operators, as well as with industry bodies such as the Confederation of Passenger Transport. In fact, when I was in Birmingham today, I did a video pushing some of its new driver recruitment campaigns, which I am really hoping will be successful. Go North East itself has just increased driver pay rates for existing and new bus drivers by 10%, as well as putting in some bonuses, to help with recruitment and retention.

I congratulate the Minister on his new role. Pay for drivers is still pretty low, and while some have had their pay increased, others have not. When they are earning only £10 an hour for the responsibility they have, surely the Minister must try to do something to improve that.

I thank the hon. Lady for speaking out. Obviously, the Government have put in place a huge number of measures to help reduce taxes on lower-paid workers, but I think this is something for the bus operators to take up, and the current ongoing disputes with unions need to be talked through. I know Go North East seems to have reached a settlement, and I hope other bus operators will also do so in the near future.

I would like to take this opportunity to place on record my thanks to the drivers around the country for the vital work they do every day. They absolutely were key workers during the pandemic, as the hon. Member for Blaydon said, and they played such a vital role to ensure that those who were required to travel were able to do so. We know nevertheless that driver shortages continue, and we will continue discussions with the sector to do more in this area.

I turn briefly to the issue of fares, which we know with the rising cost of living are a particular issue for people. The schemes that have been put in place, in addition to the funding the Government are providing, are there to help stop fares rising as much as we possibly can. A key ambition of the national bus strategy is to make services cheaper, and the over £1 billion we have allocated to local transport authorities to improve services will also support this, as will the bus improvement scheme we are looking for in the near future. We are already beginning to see a return on this investment, with reduced fare measures being introduced in Greater Manchester and Liverpool, to name just a couple of examples.

As we come out the other side of the pandemic, the Government remain determined that great bus services should be available to everyone everywhere, including in the north-east. I echo the hon. Lady’s praise for bus drivers. In addition to the £3 billion that we are providing the sector to support improvements to bus services across the country, and the nearly £2 billion in pandemic funding recovery, the Government continue to provide funding to subsidise local bus services through other routes. We provide more than £200 million every year direct to operators through bus service operator grants, to help keep fares down and help them to run more extensive networks, and a further £42 million is provided to local transport authorities annually through those grants. There are 79 English local transport authorities outside London, and Nexus has received more than £1 million this year to subsidise services in the north-east. We are also providing funding to local authorities so that old and disabled people up and down the country can travel on buses for free—a scheme that currently costs around £1 billion a year.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon, my neighbour, on securing this debate and raising this important issue. I hope she will continue to hold my feet to the fire as the new junior Minister in the Department responsible for this issue. I will write to her in due course once the Department can confirm the final allocation to Transport North East to deliver its bus service improvement plan, and I would be delighted to visit her constituency in future. Beyond my own constituency work I will shortly visit the region to look at improvements to the A1 between Scotswood and North Brunton, to help ease congestion there, and hopefully that will have a knock-on impact on some of those services. I hope the hon. Lady will see that the Government are investing substantially to improve access to transport in the north-east, including our vital bus services, and I look forward to engaging with her in future as we seek to deliver improvements to buses in the north-east as well as the rest of England.

House adjourned.