My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some of the villages in his constituency, as in mine, either do not have a bus service at all or have such a limited one that it is not reliable for people without cars. Little Brickhill, in my constituency, is one of the villages that lost its post office jut over a year ago. Now the residents there do not have a bus service to get to the nearest post office in the town, so they have had a double whammy in the loss of services. That is an important additional aspect to devising a good bus network.
The other curious and unique feature of Milton Keynes is that the grid road system has fast roads skirting around each of the residential areas, so that cars and buses can travel at high speed. It presents a trade-off between the speed of services and accessibility. There is a choice of either driving buses down the grid roads, which are far away from most people's homes, or going into the estates, which inevitably lengthens the journey. I appreciate that the bus operators have a difficult task in marrying up those two objectives.
Arriva stated when it introduced the new system that it wanted a faster network. That is what it has achieved, but it has done so at too great a cost to many of the services people rely on. There has been significant opposition to the changes, as I detailed earlier.
I will spare the House a detailed analysis of the individual routes that have changed, but I hope the following gives a little flavour of some of the problems that have arisen since the changes at the end of April. I have had letters from students who have either been late for their exams or missed them altogether; they could not rely on a bus service to get them there in time. Similarly, patients have either missed their hospital or doctor appointments, or been unable to attend them without an inordinately long journey, which they are sometimes not physically capable of making. They are therefore forced to rely on the charity of neighbours or families to transport them, or to face the expense of a taxi.
The Stony Stratford business association wrote to me about its considerable concerns about a downturn in trading following the changes. That is because a direct service into Stony Stratford, which many pensioners used, was lost. I have had reports from volunteers and carers, saying that they are now finding it so difficult to get to the homes of the people they are looking after that they have had to reassess their commitments. Finally, I have had reports from employees, who used to enjoy fast and frequent service to their places of work, but now have to endure such a long and convoluted journey that they are often late into work and have to use up their lunch hour to make up time. These are serious disadvantages, and I believe that many of them are a product of insufficient consultation among Arriva buses, the parish and town councils and different organisations in Milton Keynes.
I have also received complaints that Milton Keynes council itself has not been attentive to the implications of the changes and that there has been a lack of co-ordination. It spent a considerable amount of money putting up fancy new signs saying "this is where the buses come", and it has put up fancy new bus stops at great expense, which are now not used. There has been a considerable waste of money, which I do not think should have happened. Advertising and notifying passengers of the changes have also been a problem. When I raised that subject briefly in Transport questions a couple of weeks ago, the Minister kindly indicated that he might look at changing the regulations that govern this matter.
The situation is getting so bad that I understand that the traffic commissioner is now aware of the problem and is actively considering whether to intervene if the proper notification from different organisations in Milton Keynes is forthcoming. I do not want to spend this evening looking for scapegoats, going into who caused the problem and who did not do what. I am more interested in solutions and learning any lessons that might be applicable elsewhere.
There have been some positive developments. A new bus users group has been set up by the council, which is starting to act as a good conduit for complaints. Arriva is now looking at adjusting some of the routes to ameliorate some of the major problems that have arisen. It is a helpful development that the remit of Passenger Focus has been broadened to include bus services, which have always been the Cinderella service compared with train services.
I appreciate that it is right for much of the detail to be resolved at the local level rather than coming before Parliament, but I have sought to raise this subject in the House because I think we can learn some lessons from this unhappy state of affairs that may be helpful across other areas of the country. The Minister has kindly indicated that he will look at the notification period and I hope that that might be extended to review the process of consultation, as different groups in the affected constituency must be involved if there is to be a major restructuring of the bus network. I suggest that that should include not just unitary authority councils, but parish and town councils, and I also suggest it should include the local hospital and GP practices, because if people are unable to get to their appointments in time, that is a serious public health issue. It is vital that schools are involved as well, because if pupils cannot get in to sit their exams on time, or simply cannot arrive on time for ordinary classes, that is an issue. Milton Keynes has such a low housing density that schools have large catchment areas that cover considerable distances.
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