The draft Local Transport Bill proposes changes that will give local authorities stronger levers to improve bus services and work in partnership with bus operators. That includes making bus franchising a realistic option in areas where it is in the public interest for local authorities to take greater control of bus services.
I can give my hon. Friend a firm assurance that that will be the case. It might be made possible in a number of ways, including a voluntary partnership between a local authority and a bus operator. If the authority so chose, the arrangement could be put on a statutory basis. Alternatively, quality contracts—a form of bus franchising—would enable local authorities to have much more control over bus services. Behind all that is the idea that passengers must come first, and that local authorities must seek the powers that they need in order to ensure that passengers receive the best possible service.
In investigating the furtherance of bus travel, will the Secretary of State revisit the effect on rural transport of limiting the length of bus journeys? Many rural passengers nowadays have to interrupt their journeys and change unnecessarily because of the new regulations on the length of a bus journey before drivers and buses must be changed.
I certainly will do that. The powers we propose under the draft Local Transport Bill will enable local authorities to do as they see fit by working with the bus operator companies to put in place not only routes but frequencies and to determine punctuality and potentially the fares charged. Those powers will go a long way towards making sure that passengers get the facilities that they need. Also, community transport in rural areas will become more viable as it is made easier for there to be buses of different sizes and for drivers to be hired to operate them.
I think that all Labour Members welcome the Bill's inclusion in the draft legislative programme, but will my right hon. Friend address concerns that the process set out in the Bill for franchising bus services is too long, especially given the falling levels of bus patronage in metropolitan areas?
I understand that that is a concern, particularly in Sheffield. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will travel to Sheffield to meet people and discuss their concerns. However, I hope that my hon. Friend realises—as the local authority in Sheffield does—that our proposals will lead to the biggest shake-up in bus services for 20 years and that we are lowering the hurdle by making it much easier for local authorities to take the powers they need. I know that Sheffield is already working towards having a quality contract. We must make going down that route as easy as possible. Under the proposals, we envisage that there will be a timetable of about 14 to 20 months for a quality contract to be assured, which is similar to the length of time that a local authority would usually in any event want to spend making sure that it had got its proposals right. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be delighted to discuss the proposals not only with my hon. Friend but with the local authority.
Will the draft Bill include a proposal for a separate traffic commissioner for Wales so that we can finally end the anomaly of the regulation of bus services in Wales being based in Birmingham? Although it is a splendid city in every respect, it is hardly an appropriate vantage point from which to make decisions on transport in Wales.
I hear the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the return of powers to Wales, but the important point to make is that traffic commissioners must have the powers that they need to hold both bus operators and local authorities to account—and the Welsh Assembly thereto, where appropriate—in order to make sure that buses run on time and serve people well. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will propose reforms to the traffic commissioner body. He will have to wait for the consultation exercise to be published, but I hear what he says on this matter.
The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK has boasted that it has more influence on bus policy than MPs or local government, and we know from today's edition of The Times that it has influence in the other place. Will my right hon. Friend check the 4,000 passes to the Department for Transport and assure me that the CPT and its members do not have undue influence in that Department?
I would be delighted to speak to my hon. Friend and any other Member who has concerns about bus policy or its operation at local authority or city level. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is travelling not only to Sheffield but around the country to meet people who have particular concerns, and I am sure that she would be happy to discuss such matters with my hon. Friend.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her new Government post. If we are to accept the concept of road pricing, those areas making bids to the transport innovation fund must offer better co-ordination and planning of the bus network. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that, if Manchester's bid proceeds, the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive will have the powers it needs?
Of course, I will have to look at the bid from Greater Manchester when it comes to my Department for examination, but the principle is that if a local authority or a city wants to pursue road pricing, it is right that the public services, and public transport in particular, work well and in an integrated fashion. Local authorities must have the powers that they need, especially over buses, to make that possible and they must also have the funding to put in place transport that works to serve the needs of the local population.