I beg to move,
That this House
recognises that buses are an important tool to promote economic growth;
regrets that, outside London, bus use is in decline;
notes that since 2010 1,300 bus routes have been lost;
further notes that since 2010 bus fares have risen five times faster than wages;
further regrets that deregulation of the bus industry removed the ability of local authorities to co-ordinate their public transport networks;
and calls on the Government to ensure that city and county regions are able to make use of London-style powers to develop more integrated, frequent, cheaper and greener bus services with integrated Oyster card-style ticketing.
Buses are the lifelines of our cities, towns and villages, but unfortunately, since 2010, 1,300 bus routes have been axed, and passenger numbers outside London have fallen as people have been priced off the buses. Bus fares have risen five times faster than wages, contributing to the longest cost of living crisis that any of us has ever seen. The Government have cut bus funding by 17% in just three years. We must get better value for the public subsidy that remains, which makes up 40% of bus operators’ income. We must reform the broken market for buses, and ensure that competition benefits passengers. We must move decisions and powers on transport services closer to the people who use them—away from Whitehall and closer to the town hall. We want simple, smart ticketing with a daily cap that can be used across buses, trams and trains. We want public authorities to have powers to set routes, and to help working people and businesses succeed.
I want to question the bus usage statistic that the hon. Lady just gave. My statistics on passenger journeys state that there were 5.2 billion journeys in the most recent year—2013-14—which is clearly more than in 2009-10 and the situation we inherited from the previous Government.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman raised that point because that is the only year in which numbers of bus journeys outside London have increased since 1986. If he looks at bus statistics for the past 28 years, he will see that there is a one-year blip—that year is the exception that proves the rule, which is that outside London bus services are in long-term decline.
I want to make some progress; the hon. Gentleman has made his point. We want more people to use buses, because when they do they are able to participate fully in economic, cultural, and social life.
It is worth remembering that the previous Conservative Government cut the subsidies and imposed privatisation on local authorities. I support the motion, but we must ensure that local authorities are given the tools to do the job. That means money coming from central Government, not passing the issue on to local authorities so that they have to provide the subsidy.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and only this morning I met Councillor John McNicholas from Coventry to discuss some of the issues with Centro and the west midlands.
I want to talk about three big issues. The first is why buses are so important to our economy, and the second is what has happened to buses under this Government. Finally, I will set out how a Labour Government will empower local authorities to take control of local transport.
Let me begin with why buses are important. Buses give people the freedom to work, learn, explore new places and connect with new people. Nearly 5 billion bus trips are made in Britain each year, and three times more trips are made by bus than by train. Buses take the unemployed to job interviews and to work, and they take young people to their exams, colleges and into their futures.
I congratulate Councillor Liam Robinson, chair of Merseytravel, who spotted that young people from larger families were not turning up to school on Thursdays and Fridays. Why? Their families had run out of money for bus fares. He negotiated a young person’s ticket where the fare is capped at £2 a day instead of £1.30 a journey. The number of bus users has grown as a result, and young people in Liverpool and Merseyside no longer miss out on their education.
My hon. Friend is right to mention the affordability of bus services. Is she aware that in Manchester, for example, to travel six miles on buses costs more than £3, yet here in London that same six-mile journey using an Oyster card would cost just £1.45? Do we not need affordable public transport too?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I was talking to Councillor Andrew Fender only this morning about some of the difficulties faced in the Greater Manchester area. If someone travels over a whole day in London within certain zones their bus fare will be capped at £4.40, but if they live anywhere outside London their fare is not capped and they pay far more.
Buses take people to the GP and to hospital appointments. When I visited Plymouth in July, Labour council leader Tudor Evans, my hon. Friend Alison Seabeck and Labour candidate Luke Pollard told me how a previous short-sighted Tory city council had sold off the city’s municipal bus company. [Interruption.] We heard the word “excellent” from Jackie Doyle-Price. I am sure her constituents would be pleased to hear that.
The bus services are privatised in London too. I have nothing against privatisation. [Interruption.] I will tell the hon. Lady a little bit about what I learned on my trip to Plymouth and maybe she will learn something about her constituency.
Cuts in bus services have forced people to take taxis or ambulances to hospital, putting pressure on NHS budgets. I am delighted to report that my Plymouth colleagues, working alongside Councillor Pauline Murphy who is undoubtedly known to the hon. Lady, has secured a new bus service from Efford to Derriford. I congratulate them on that result.
Buses bring economic and environmental benefits. The UK is one of the most congested countries in the developed world. British motorists spend an average of 124 hours—more than five days a year—stuck in traffic. Traffic jams cause air pollution, which causes the early deaths of an estimated 29,000 people a year. In Worcester last Thursday, I met Joy Squires and others who are campaigning to bring back their park and ride service. It was scrapped by a Tory city and a Tory county council, yet—here is the irony—local taxpayers are paying £3,000 a month just to keep the site secure even as Worcester, England’s third most congested city, clogs up with even more traffic. Where is the sense in that?
Does the hon. Lady agree that there are various reasons for congestion in our cities? For example, we have a plethora of 24-hour bus lanes when we do not have 24 hour buses. Will she therefore applaud Liverpool council, which has carried out an experiment and decided to scrap 22 of its 26 bus lanes to ease congestion for all motorists?
I am always happy to pay tribute to Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool, and to Councillor Liam Robinson. It is clear to me, from my discussions around the country, that we need properly enforced bus lanes and that they are a necessary but not sufficient part of getting regular, reliable bus services. If people think they are going to be sitting on a bus behind a load of car traffic, they will choose to take their car and add to it. Buses take people off the roads.
Will the hon. Lady look closely at the experiment Liverpool carried out? I understand that it found that although removing the bus lanes led to a small increase in bus journey times it had no effect whatever on the number of people using buses.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point. There is now a lot we can do, phasing traffic lights and all sorts of clever ways, to give buses priority. They all need to be considered.
I am delighted my hon. Friend has secured the debate, which is incredibly important for my constituents. Does she agree that one of the big impacts on local bus services has been the massive cuts to local government, particularly in northern areas where local authorities have seen massive cuts to the subsidies they can provide for unprofitable services? People are able to get a bus to work during rush hour but are not able to get one home when their shift finishes. Is there not just a responsibility on the Minister here, but on the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr Pickles?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend on that issue. County councils and city councils of whatever colour or hue have been forced into some very difficult decisions by the cuts made by this Government. It is a short-sighted policy that has caused genuine hardship across the country.
Does the hon. Lady welcome the partnership between Stagecoach, Conservative-led Warwickshire county council and employers on the new service from Nuneaton to Birch Coppice? The service is being run in conjunction with employers to fit their shift patterns, which will help many Nuneaton people to get to work.
I do indeed welcome that. I welcome any innovation from bus companies. It is important that we get large employers working with bus companies to talk about their shift patterns and, in particular, with NHS hospitals, which often tend to be built by the NHS outside city centres, without any consequential thinking about how people will access those health services or designing a bus service for people to use.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Of course, the Prime Minister famously said that he would protect bus passes for pensioners; what he did not say is that there would be any bus services left for people to get on.
I would like to put on record the fact that in Scotland it was Labour that introduced free bus passes. However, with the present Administration north of the border, it is questionable whether they will continue.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Of course, the relationship between the owner of Stagecoach and a particular party north of the border is well known, although I will leave it at that.
On air pollution, Labour’s parliamentary candidate, Andrew Pakes, invited me to Milton Keynes, where I was delighted—[Interruption]—it was very nice too—to see that the Labour council had worked with Arriva to introduce the first all-electric bus route with charging plates.
I think hon. Members will find that the green bus fund was actually started under a Labour Government.
Buses are key to tackling congestion and air pollution. Buses power the early morning economy—the shift workers, the security guards and the cleaners—and they power the night-time economy, bringing young people safely in and out of city and town centres to work and have fun. However, I do not think Ministers understand the importance of buses, because they and their friends do not use them. If they did, they would not have slashed bus funding by 17% in real terms in just three years. We have seen bus fares outside London rise by 25%, five times faster than wages. The frail and the vulnerable are disproportionately affected.
My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that Baroness Thatcher reportedly said that the man who finds himself on a bus after the age of 25 can consider himself a failure. Does she agree that that kind of contempt for buses is why Conservative Members can never champion the kind of good quality and good value services that our constituents need?
I think that comment dates from another time. I agree that the sort of prejudice against public transport in that comment is deeply unhelpful. I think that a man or woman who finds themselves on a bus at the age of 46, as I did this morning, has achieved a great deal in life. I want buses to be seen as an aspirational form of public transport, not something that people take only if they cannot afford something better.
I aspire to a country in which even the Duchess of Westminster travels on the Clapham omnibus—or even the Westminster omnibus.
We know that the rise in bus fares has disproportionately affected the frail and the vulnerable, as well as young jobseekers and those on low incomes without access to a car. We know, too, that in some rural areas, bus services have all but disappeared—the result of this Government’s deep cuts to supported services, which my hon. Friend Mr Cunningham mentioned. Freedom of information requests by my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn uncovered the fact that local authority bus subsidies across shire counties were cut by 23% in real terms between 2010 and 2014. Conservative Northamptonshire county council cut its subsidy by 55%, and Conservative-run Suffolk by 50%.
In cities outside London, there is a chaotic mix of local control over trams and metros, private provision of buses and nationally operated rail franchises—no integrated ticketing, no real-time information and no fares information at the bus stop. The bus companies say, “Ask the driver”, but can we imagine going to Tesco for a loaf of bread and being told that we have to take it to the checkout to find out the price? There is often no usable map of the bus networks and their connections. Instead, different bus companies compete for fares.
Is not the issue here that Transport for London set the frequency and set the standards and bus companies bid to be part of the network, whereas Transport for Greater Manchester does not currently have those powers so that private bus companies set the network and TFGM has to infill with minuscule resources that it does not have?
That is indeed an important point. The competition in London happens at the point of contracting the routes, whereas in Manchester the theoretical competition happens on the road. I was on a bus in Manchester last Friday, so I know my hon. Friend makes an important point about the sort of private provision and the sort of competition that benefit not just people, but our economy, jobs and growth. If we do not have transport mobility, we will not have social mobility because people will not be able to move out of their areas to look for work, further their education and better themselves.
It is not, of course, just Manchester, as this applies across the country. When bus services to local hospitals were cut, there was little Centro could do about it—it was the bus companies that did it—and there was nothing that local councils could do either. It required an excellent campaign such as the one conducted by our Labour candidate, Stephanie Peacock, to get the bus services working again.
I pay tribute to Stephanie Peacock. My right hon. Friend reinforces my point about linking up to health services. Interestingly during this period of cuts to bus services, what we have seen is that when services that were once “supported services” were cut by the transport authorities, they magically reappeared when bus companies suddenly found that they could operate the services commercially after all. When the taxpayer is paying but a service is suddenly found to be commercially viable, it is a further sign of a market that is not working properly.
The hon. Lady will recognise that there is a great deal of cross-party agreement about the need for bus services and their importance, but I hope she will also recognise the importance of rail services, which might be able to take off some of the pressure on the bus routes if towns are fortunate enough to have a railway station. Will she support my campaign to extend the Robin Hood line in Nottingham to the villages of Edwinstowe and Ollerton?
I was talking to the transport lead on Nottinghamshire county council this morning. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that trains also play a part. Trains are important, but the difficulties experienced by his Government—around the franchising process, the transfer of rolling stock and the delays in electrification—make reliance on the train as a substitute for bus services more difficult. We have had a freeze in the letting of franchises, with very big difficulties, particularly in the north of England, where carriages are going to be transferred down to Chiltern Railways. The services obviously need to be part of a planned network. The people who come to those stations either by car or bus use a different form of ticket when they get there and the point we are trying to get across is that devolving such decisions closer to communities will allow the system for rail, tram, underground, metro and bus services to be the same. Ease of interchange is key to encouraging people to use those services.
At the moment, outside London, our transport network adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Different forms of transport compete needlessly, instead of providing seamless journeys from A to B, and there is a lack of competition. That does not work in the passengers’ interests, the public interest or for local businesses. The Competition Commission has estimated that the failure of competition in the bus market costs the taxpayer £305 million every year.
London is the exception. Transport in the capital works far better for passengers than in any other British city. That is not simply because there is more money and there are more people. It is because Ken Livingstone, as London’s first directly elected Mayor, took some hard decisions. He introduced the congestion charge and properly enforced bus lanes. Labour understands how important it is to equip our cities with similar powers to make their transport systems work. Bus services should be available, accessible, affordable and convenient, which is why we have announced plans to give London-style bus powers to any city or county region that wants them.
In Bristol, First has a near monopoly on buses. I have just asked for a meeting with the latest in a long line of managing directors so I can present yet another dossier of complaints from the public about unreliable services and high fares. Bristol is crying out for the sort of change that my hon. Friend has just mentioned. We need local control of bus services. May I urge her to make good speed in trying to bring in those changes? Perhaps she can visit Bristol to see just how much we need them.
I would be happy to visit Bristol to look at some of the issues there. I know that Bristol is a good cycling city. I have been invited there to try the cycling, so perhaps I can combine the visit.
The interesting thing is that the hon. Lady almost dismisses the vast amount of extra money that London transport receives, the hugely increased population, which is larger than that of Scotland, and the compactness of the area in which London transport operates. It is totally different from anywhere else in the country. If one looks at Hampshire or Dorset, one can surely see the difference.
I do understand the difference between a big city and a little city. I also understand the difference between a big city that is growing by 70,000 to 80,000 people a year and that has a thriving tourist economy and counties such as Hampshire and Dorset, which are dealing with problems of geography, topography and in many cases poorly maintained roads. However, the bus subsidy in London is not that out of kilter, given the number of people per head who travel on buses. It is a hugely used form of public transport. I did not dismiss those differences. I do understand them.
The Secretary of State knows that the current legislation to regulate buses is too onerous, but that has not stopped the determined trying. I pay tribute to the combined authorities in the north-east and west Yorkshire, who I visited last week. There, far-sighted local leaders have spent the past four years trying to achieve better buses through a quality contract. They will have my full support in government.
We are delighted that the Chancellor, belatedly, seems to agree with us that London-style transport powers unlock growth. Does the Secretary of State for Transport agree with him? A small yes, a possible yes, or a sphinx-like silence? Perhaps there is trouble in paradise. If he does agree with the Chancellor, will he explain why any transport authority that pursued a quality contract—in essence, London-style bus powers—was penalised by his Department and banned from bidding for his better bus fund?
This morning, I held a bus summit with city and county council leaders to discuss how devolution can give city and county regions better buses.
It was, and it included Conservative representation. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can see me afterwards if he wants the names, but I do not know whether—[Interruption.] Actually, I think that I am going to make sure that they are secret.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps we should have a bell that Members can ring.
I am not sure that I should say who attended the summit. Officers from Devon county council attended, as did one Conservative leader, but I am not sure that he would be pleased with me if I named him. [Hon. Members: “Name him!”] No, I will not. It is for me to know and for other Members to find out. [Interruption.] It was not a secret summit. All 105 city and county leaders were invited.
At the summit, we discussed how London-style powers could bring more small and medium-sized bus companies into a market in which five big companies take 70% of the business. We noted that those five operators all complain about a regulated market outside London, but are happy to operate in a regulated London bus market. We discussed how the voice of the passenger left waiting at a bus stop could be heard, how we could overcome the barriers to open data about buses, how ticketing could be linked with trams and trains, and how interchanges could be made easier. We also discussed the fact that communities can be isolated just a mile from a city centre if there is no bus, which is what happens on the Peacock estate in Wakefield.
On Monday, Stagecoach claimed that it could deliver multi-operator Oyster-style ticketing across the country by 2015, which came as a surprise to many Members. We know that unless the law is changed, it will not be able to deliver multi-operator tickets with a daily price cap. Stagecoach has also claimed that politicians are
“peddling the myth that London is best” for buses. This morning, however, one councillor referred to London as the “magic kingdom” of buses. London has 7 million regular Oyster card users. In contrast, the Secretary of State this morning heaped praise on Centro in the west midlands for having just 3,000 smart card users.
I want to seize this opportunity to fix the broken bus market. The current problems stem from an over-centralised state, and the Government have done nothing to change that. All local authorities face different transport challenges. Only when public transport, cycling and walking become attractive options will they grow and improve.
I do not think it is fair that only London provides passengers with one ticket for every form of public transport, always guaranteeing the lowest fare and capping daily bus usage at £4.40.
My hon. Friend is right to mention the multi-modal travel that is made possible by the Oyster card. If someone began a journey in Manchester on the train, transferred to Metrolink and then transferred to a bus, people would think that they were absolutely bonkers. Not only do those three travel modes not join up, but it is not possible to obtain a single ticket that can be used on all of them.
My hon. Friend has made another excellent point. I have experienced that myself. When I caught a tram from the station, a return journey cost £1.50, and I then had to take a bus to the venue, which cost £1.40.
I do not think it is fair that only London provides audio-visual announcements on all buses for the benefit of deaf, blind and partially sighted people. I do not think it is fair that only London provides seamless interchanges with real-time information that makes door-to-door journeys easy. When I was visiting—I think—Milton Keynes, a lady said to me “We call them ghost buses. You stand at the bus stop and you see from the countdown that buses are coming, but when they are due, they just do not turn up. Why are there these ghost buses in the system?” We know that there are problems with technology and other equipment, but why are the problems ironed out in some cities and not in others? Labour will ensure that cities are given the powers they need to take control of their transport system, no longer playing second fiddle to the capital. Bus provision where cities let the routes will unlock efficiencies to cut fares, run more buses and invest in growing the network. Bus provision must become quicker and easier to achieve. We want a bus market that is growing, not dying by a thousand cuts.
Transport plays a vital role in driving economic growth. Devolution is important and control over transport is important, but transport is much more than that. It has profound effects on us as people and on the places where we live. It affects our health, our environment and our quality of life. Buses are the lifelines of our cities, towns and villages. Buses enable people to get to work, bring jobs and growth to our high streets, reduce isolation and ensure mobility for those unable to drive.
Labour is the party of the bus user. In government over 13 years we increased funding for buses from £774 million in 1997 to £2.3 billion in 2010.
The hon. Lady makes the valid point that buses bring mobility to those who are unable to drive. How then does she feel about Southampton city council removing concessionary passes from disabled people, who have previously enjoyed them?
As I have said, Southampton council is doing no more than delivering the very strong cuts to its budgets that the hon. Lady’s Government have imposed on it and that she has voted for as a loyal servant of her party, so I tell the people of Southampton to vote Labour next time.
No, I am going to conclude my remarks as many Members wish to speak.
We introduced free concessionary bus travel for pensioners and the disabled, bringing freedom to millions.
I welcome this debate, and may I take this opportunity to do something fairly unusual by welcoming Mary Creagh to her first Opposition day debate on transport even though she has been in her post for over 15 months? One could say it has been a long time in coming, but I hope this will not be like what sometimes happens with buses when we get two at once.
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that buses matter and that they matter to a huge amount of people, and that sometimes their importance is overlooked. I could say that I think that has been overlooked by the hon. Lady, because she has not asked a single oral question about buses in all the oral questions to me as Transport Secretary in this House and, indeed, there have only been four written questions about buses from her to me or the Department. So I am pleased about her newly awakened interest in buses, and perhaps what awoke her interest was the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer earlier this week on proper devolution to Greater Manchester, with a new, powerful mayor. That was announced by the Chancellor alongside many leaders, including from her own party—who did not keep their identity a secret, unlike, it would seem, those who attended the summit with the hon. Lady.
I must also say that, despite all the points the Opposition make about the state of the bus industry and the changing of the regulations so far as the cities are concerned, over 13 years in office they did nothing—despite all the grand programmes, over 13 years in power they did nothing.
I cannot blame the hon. Lady because she was not here during those heady days of Labour party power, but if she wants to mount a defence for why her party did nothing in 13 years, I will give way to her.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way so graciously. Does he agree with me that, by giving local authorities the power to institute quality contracts, the last Labour Government did do something for good services? Will he also join my hon. Friend Mary Creagh in welcoming the fact that the North East combined authority is seeking to deliver good quality contracts for constituents?
The simple fact is that, if my memory is correct, it is legislation enacted in 2000 that allowed quality contracts to come in, yet none was introduced during that time. [Interruption.] I am saying no, but I will check the exact date.
I should point out that it is this Government who are making the difference—even Labour in the north know it now—and I am proud of our record on buses. So perhaps today, I can put straight a few of the facts; indeed, we might end up even agreeing. Let me spell them out. The motion today says that buses matter to the economy. Of course they do, which is why we have been investing heavily in them. The motion also says that bus use outside London is falling. I have some good news for the House and the hon. Member for Wakefield: actually, it is not falling at all; it is going up, reversing the trend we inherited from the last Government. In the last year alone, there have been 4.7 billion bus journeys in England, the highest number since records began. There is growth outside London as well—up 1.5% on last year. Buses in England are busier. In 2013-14, 16.1 billion passenger miles were travelled on buses in England, up from 15.2 billion in 2009-10—an increase of 900 million journey miles.
No. As I have just pointed out, the trend has been reversed—[Interruption]—in the last year for which figures were available, and not just inside London but outside it too.
It has to go through a process that involves the traffic commissioners, and it would be wrong of me at this stage to take a view one way or the other. The process was set out in legislation introduced by the last Government.
As I was saying, we have started to see growth under this Government, because the services are better. Buses are becoming more accessible, so that everyone can use them: well over three quarters of the fleet is now fully accessible. Buses are also getting safer: there is CCTV on 82% of buses in England, an all-time high. Buses are getting easier to use, with smart card readers on 86% of English buses outside London, up from just 25% when the last Government were in power.
So when the hon. Member for Wakefield calls for Oyster-style ticketing, there is good news: we are making it happen, when the last Government did not. A lot of progress has been made. Those are the real facts: a growing industry, a popular industry, with high and rising passenger satisfaction levels. Investment is going into the industry—£1.4 billion of private capital over the last five years by the major operators alone. That means newer, cleaner, greener buses, better services and new information systems. The “Boris bus” in London is a world beater, and the pensioner pass has been protected. This year, we will fund spending on concessionary travel by nearly £1 billion.
I am very grateful that the Secretary of State has chosen to do that, and he will know that many of his constituents choose to do that. However, if they choose to do so on Derbyshire’s bus services, they would probably not recognise the description he has just given. Will he at least recognise that many people in our constituencies—old people, who really rely on bus services, and people who cannot get to work without them—would not recognise the rosy picture he is attempting to paint?
The hon. Gentleman talks about a “rosy picture”; I am just giving him the facts and figures. If he does not like the facts, no doubt he will change them. However, I will stick by the facts that I have here.
National Express, which plays an important role in providing bus services in my constituency, made a decision to re-route some services to the Lodgefield estate without consulting the local authority and without enough consultation with local people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such companies need to understand that safety issues can be resolved if they work with their Member of Parliament and with the local authority? We have now had a promise that one of the routes is to be restored.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have no doubt that that route is going to be restored as a result of the bus company taking notice of the campaign that he led. I would recommend such action to all Members of Parliament. Perhaps I can also set the record straight in relation to Milton Keynes. The scheme to which the hon. Member for Wakefield referred was in fact started by Milton Keynes council when it was Conservative controlled. The pressure for it came from my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Iain Stewart, who has a long-standing interest in transport, having also served on the Transport Select Committee. He, too, knows a bit about campaigning for good services for local constituents.
It is all fine and well for private bus companies to have smart card technology on their buses, but does not the Secretary of State understand that what we want is proper integration between the various modes of public transport? We want a single pricing structure across all those modes so that my constituents in Greater Manchester—and others outside Manchester and London—can move from train to tram to bus easily.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the desirability of easier access to the various modes of public transport, whether in relation to the trams and buses in his own area or to other forms of inter-modal change. He is absolutely right. When people turn up in a city that they are new to, they need to be able to get a better understanding of the public transport there, rather than having to find their way through a maze of information. I hope that recent advances in technology—they were not there five years ago so I cannot blame the last Government for not implementing them—will mean that bus and tram operators can all provide the much better service that passengers want for the longer term.
I want to raise an issue relating to the Government’s record on concessionary travel for pensioners and disabled people using coach services. This Government removed that concessionary travel in 2011. Pensioners from my constituency who wanted to go to Newcastle, York or Leeds, for example, used to rely on those coach services, but they no longer exist. Will the Secretary of State look into that matter?
Everybody tries to look at the various services. I have not heard any commitments about new money from the Opposition in this regard. I am not sure whether they are committing today to putting more money into that particular area. Overall, I think we have a strong record. I have heard the shadow Chancellor say that the Opposition Front Bench will make no further commitments, in which case I do not see how they can reverse any of the many changes that have been made.
As I have said, we will spend nearly £1 billion on concessionary travel this year, and that relates not only to the funds that go into the public transport network. A huge amount of money also goes into public transport relating to education and to the health service.
Has the Secretary of State seen the excellent report by Dick Tracey, a former Member of this House, which suggests that we could cut congestion, reduce journey times for buses and other traffic and save money if we switched off some traffic lights during the evenings? May we have a trial of that excellent idea?
I think I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I have not read that pamphlet by Richard Tracey, but I am sure, knowing my right hon. Friend, that he will ensure that I have a copy in the next few days and I will certainly look at it. Some areas already have part-time traffic lights, which at certain stages are turned off. I would perhaps need a lot more convincing that such lights are practical in every set of circumstances, but I look forward to receiving a letter from him pointing these things out.
As I said, more than £300 million has been allocated to fund major local authority bus projects since 2010, which means: the changes on the ground in places such as Mansfield, Rochdale and Ipswich; two brand new park and ride hubs in York; Bristol’s ambitious £180 million MetroBus network; and, through our £70 million better bus areas fund in 2012, we have supported improvement schemes in 24 local authorities.
I am glad that the Secretary of State mentioned the MetroBus BRT—bus rapid transit—scheme in Bristol. Is he aware that the local community has concerns about how that scheme is rolling out? We have been told that the Department is not prepared to negotiate or revisit some of the details of the scheme to make sure it represents a good way of spending taxpayers’ money. I am due to meet the Minister in the other place, Baroness Kramer, soon, but can the Secretary of State assure me that the Department is prepared to be as flexible as possible so that we can deliver a bus service that actually tackles Bristol’s hideous congestion?
The hon. Lady already has a meeting fixed up with my noble Friend, and I am sure she will certainly take on board the points the hon. Lady makes. Whenever these schemes are rolled out we want to ensure that they are the best possible for the areas concerned. Obviously, this scheme is being done in conjunction with the mayor and the local authorities, so I am interested to hear what she is saying about it. I would point out that most schemes are often controversial in their early days and it is only once they are up and running that people see the benefit. A number of cities that have had trams and tram links or other such schemes have found that they start off with some controversy but eventually the benefits are seen.
I was talking about the £70 million we had set aside for the better buses fund in 2012, which supported schemes in 24 local authorities. In Blackpool, a £1.5 million programme has seen investment in traffic management systems, bus lanes and bus shelters. Enhancing buses is a feature of 95% of the projects supported by the £600 million of local sustainable transport fund money. Passenger numbers are going up in Sheffield, thanks to the better bus area, backed by £18 million from the better bus area fund from my Department. Of course it is not just money that counts; we also need to back the ambition and vision. That is what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor did on Monday: a directly elected city region mayor with strong powers will be able to provide the strategic direction for the people and economy of Greater Manchester. It will mean more joined-up decision making in transport, housing and growth. This Government fundamentally believe that devolution and taking this decision will help make that a reality.
Like the leaders in Greater Manchester, I welcome the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement and, in particular, the powers that are going to be given to the mayor to introduce a franchising system for buses in Greater Manchester. Does that represent a sea change in the Government’s view of franchising, with franchising being seen as a superior way of creating on-road competition for buses?
I do not think that reflects a change. I would like to have a mosaic of transport systems. What is applicable in certain areas will not be applicable in others, but I am willing to have discussions with leaders in other areas and with people who would put an alternative view of how we best approach these matters. It is important not to get obsessed with one-size-fits-all regulation; a common-sense approach is best for each community.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene a second time. Does he not understand the apparent inconsistency in the argument being advanced here? On the one hand we are told that Greater Manchester should have these powers, but on the other hand his Department has failed over the past four years to back Tyne and Wear in its very similar approach to these matters. Is there not an inconsistency?
I do not think that there is inconsistency at all. What we have seen in Greater Manchester is a coming together that goes much wider than just the Manchester authorities, with a much more imaginative scheme that includes the powers of the police and crime commissioner and many services in the area. I think that it is bold and imaginative, and I am sorry that Opposition Members seem to be a bit upset about it—I can see Manchester Members nodding in vigorous agreement with what we are doing.
We must also recognise what great things have been done by the private sector. I want devolution to be a success, based on the best that the public and private sectors can do. The private sector brings ingenuity, creativity and innovation to transport, and that must continue. We have manufacturers in the UK at the cutting edge of technological innovation, and we have operators setting the benchmark for new customer services and investing massively in new vehicles. That includes over 800 new low-carbon buses, supported by Government funding. Through the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, we will be supporting the purchase of hundreds more. I was at the bus expo in Birmingham this morning, seeing for myself what the bus and coach industry has to offer. No one could fail to be impressed by the dynamism of hundreds of the exhibitors.
Of course, there are challenges ahead. We need to go back to good transport in rural areas, for instance. As a resident of rural Derbyshire, I know how important buses are to people in the countryside. For many isolated communities, buses can be a lifeline. The old model of services is changing, and we need to ensure that as it changes people retain access to good transport. We all need to work together to get it right. I want to pay tribute to the brilliant work done by community transport operators and their many volunteers. There are three such operators in my constituency: Bakewell and Eyam Community Transport, Ashbourne Community Transport and Amber Valley Community Transport. They do a fantastic job, as do other community transport operators across the rest of the country. I want to do more to help them, and very soon I will say more on how we can do that.
In principle, I do not have a problem with devolving transport to local authorities, but the resources must go with it. The bill must not become a burden on local authorities so that the Government can get rid of the subsidies.
As I have set out, I am very committed and will help support the bus industry in this country.
As I was just talking about community transport, I will also say that I want to see faster movement on smart ticketing. That is happening. Only this week, five of the main operators announced a welcome roll-out of joint smart ticketing in cities across England. In west Yorkshire the MCard, launched in July last year, can already be used on 98% of buses in the area and on local rail services. There are now over 500,000 live smart cards and over 1 million smart card transactions per week—I am sure that the hon. Member for Wakefield, as a west Yorkshire MP, already has one in her pocket. Liverpool is launching a multi-operator smart ticket this month. Centro in the west midlands is making great progress too. In August the Solent Go smart ticket was launched, covering Southampton, Hampshire, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. That is an excellent model of collaboration. We need to see smaller operators in the towns and the countryside do that too. Great operators, such as Trentbarton in the east midlands, are already there.
That is our record: a Government who have backed business; an industry that is growing; better services attracting more passengers; and real devolution, not just talking about it. This Government are making the difference, unlike the Labour party, which did nothing as far as buses were concerned when it was in government.
I am very pleased that buses are being debated here in this important national forum. Buses are a lifeline to millions of people. There are more than 5.2 billion bus passenger journeys a year and two thirds of all journeys are taken by bus, but it is rare that buses receive national attention.
The Transport Committee has looked at bus services on three occasions in this Parliament. We have looked at competition in local bus services, we have looked at access to transport for disabled people, where buses featured strongly, and we have looked at transport problems for isolated communities. Those isolated communities are not, as is commonly thought, concentrated in rural areas; they also involve urban areas, and increasingly so, where local transport services, including buses, are often withdrawn. As so many hon. Members have already mentioned this afternoon, buses are essential for many people to get to work, to educational facilities, to important health services and amenities, and to social facilities. They matter for millions of people throughout the country.
The Transport Committee reached a number of conclusions, but there was one overriding message: while there are certainly areas where there has been success and where there are examples of local authority innovation and working together, overall the deregulated system is not working effectively. When bus deregulation was first introduced and started to operate in 1986, the legislation was extremely controversial. The image put forward by its supporters was that the dead hand of local authority involvement would be done away with to be replaced by a new deregulated system, where private operators competed across transport routes and the public sector came in where there was failure, which it was thought would be a small area. It was thought that the private sector would thrive, with lots of operators competing with one another to improve services and bring bus fares down.
That has simply not happened. Instead, there are a small number of monopoly bus operators and fares have not come down. Far from coming down, in the last four years alone bus fares have increased by 42%, and public subsidy for bus services has increased. There is now a £2.5 billion subsidy for bus services, and that constitutes 45% of operators’ revenue, so the promise of deregulation as a new system simply has not been fulfilled.
I commend the work of my hon. Friend’s Committee in highlighting many of these issues. In my constituency, a deregulated transport system means that Audenshaw now has a really good bus service provided by Stagecoach trying to compete with a really good tram service provided by Transport for Greater Manchester, providing good alternative public transport, but along the A57 corridor, through Denton, where there is no alternative tram or train provision, we have a skeleton bus service. We have the worst of both worlds. We are paying more and getting less.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. At the moment, the system does not allow proper integration to meet the transport needs of people across an area. We must always remember that deregulation was never introduced for the whole of the country. London was always left out, and that is why the London system has thrived while we have experienced all the problems elsewhere. It is certainly true that there are many local areas where the local authorities have innovated and used some of the provisions of the Transport Act 1985 to develop partnerships that could be successful—when the Transport Committee looked at what was happening in Oxford, we were impressed by what we saw, and individual Members will all have their own experiences—but they are examples and not the system that affects the majority of people.
Community transport, which was mentioned by the Secretary of State, is also important. When we did our work, looking at what is happening in isolated communities where services are being withdrawn, we found some good examples of community transport. However, community transport, which is run mainly by volunteers, cannot fill the gap that is created when local bus services are withdrawn. It simply cannot do that.
On the last information we had, about 47% of local authorities were being forced to reduce their subsidies to local bus services because of cuts in their expenditure. It looks as if the withdrawal of local services will be a growing problem: commercial services simply withdraw when they are not making a profit, and local authorities are under increasing financial pressure. Unless something different happens, there will be a reduction in services in areas where this affects vulnerable people.
Services on busy transport routes, which are profitable and used by significant numbers of people, will not be withdrawn because private operators will continue to operate them. There are many other areas, however, where bus services are a lifeline for people—I am talking about people who need buses to get to work or to try to get a job—but are being withdrawn. In the evening, people want to go out, but there may not be sufficient numbers to create a profitable service, so such services are being withdrawn. The difficulty is not on busy routes where there are large numbers of people and where there might be some competition—although we have a virtual monopoly situation—but in all the other areas, affecting millions of people.
I think it has been recognised that something needs to be done. In the last Parliament, the Local Transport Act 2008 introduced quality contracts, which was seen as a way of trying to address the problem. Many Members felt that it did not go far enough, but it was progress on the system that had been inherited. It was a matter of regret that the then Opposition opposed that
Act. I was surprised by that and found it difficult to understand. There were also those who felt that the Act should have gone further.
Quality contracts have not solved the problem. The North East combined authority comprises the only group of transport authorities that got close to securing a quality contract. It is now consulting on some admirable proposals, but it has taken a long time to get there. The whole process has been protracted and difficult, as the authority had not only to negotiate with a number of people but to face opposition from some of the transport operators. I hope it is successful, as it is making great efforts. The proposals it has put together offer a great deal of promise to the people in their areas.
The Government must recognise that more needs to be done. The current devolution proposals that have been put forward include the plan for the Greater Manchester combined authority to be given transport powers, very much along the lines of the powers that already exist in London. I welcome that move, but if those powers are going to be good enough for the combined authority in Manchester, why can they not be made available for other transport authorities as well?
It is a matter not of imposing a system everywhere, but of permitting local authorities and transport authorities to acquire those powers if they want to do so. At the moment, that cannot be done, but I wish the combined authority proposal great success in Manchester, and I hope that it can be proffered in other areas as well.
Buses matter for millions of people across the country. It is high time that they were part of a national debate. I hope that as a result of today’s debate, and all the other discussions and investigations of bus services, buses get a much higher profile and secure more national recognition and more Government support. Yes, we should encourage variety and innovation, but we should recognise that the deregulation of buses has not, of itself, brought about massive competition to the benefit of passengers. Outside London, it has led to a reduction in bus usage, and we must reverse that everywhere.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mrs Ellman, alongside whom I have the pleasure of serving on the Select Committee on Transport—a very important subject. Despite being a relatively recent addition to her Committee, I was present for much of the inquiry she outlined and found it highly significant.
I would like, if I may, to begin my comments with a reflection on a detailed area that the hon. Lady summarised but perhaps did not have time to go into—the sections of society that can and do use passenger transport, and value it very deeply. As she rightly said, as did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, buses do matter, and I will set out some of the groups for whom they matter most. The first is older people, because many elderly people are unable to drive. Then there are younger people, who, as we heard in the Committee, make significantly fewer car journeys than before, with a 10% drop, over the past decade and a bit, in the number of 17 to 20-year-olds holding a driving licence. Passenger transport is essential for unemployed people because it allows them to sign on at a jobcentre and then look for work. That is particularly relevant to cities and counties like mine, Norwich and Norfolk, where work may be in a city amid a rural area.
Is the hon. Lady aware that when bus services are as unreliable as they are in places such as Bristol, there is an increasing problem in that people seeking work are being sanctioned by jobcentres because they cannot make it to their appointments on time? If they are 20 minutes late, through no fault of their own, they can find that they are losing a couple of weeks’ money and have absolutely nothing to live on.
I shall respond to that intervention, which is of course on a topic unrelated to the motion, by referring to a very good scheme that operates in Norfolk called Kickstart, which is open particularly to young people. For the price of perhaps only a few bus tickets—when one does the sums—it offers a very affordable moped. Buses are not necessarily the only way for jobseekers to get to where they need to go. I pay tribute to the Kickstart project and what it does to help square this circle.
The Committee heard about two more groups, the first of which is people who are not necessarily unemployed but have low incomes, and may well be more dependent than others on bus travel. Finally, and importantly, there are disabled people. Passenger transport allows disabled people to access not only employment but community and family life, and the entire range of things that one would like them to be able to do. The Campaign For Better Transport told us that disabled people use buses about 20% more frequently than the non-disabled population..
I want to mention a couple of cases that have recently been raised with me by disabled constituents, both of which involved complaints about a particular bus company and what was perceived to be unfair treatment of disabled passengers. In one case, the disabled passenger himself wrote to me; in the other, it was somebody who described what they had seen. There is a common thread between the two. I would like to draw the House’s attention to a tension within the law relating to disabled passengers. It relates to the shared space on buses for both wheelchair users and buggies, a subject well known to everyone in the House. In one case, the bus driver failed to ask a pushchair user to make space for a wheelchair user. After looking into the regulations that apply to the bus company and investigating the case with the Department for Transport, it has become clear that the bus company ought to do the right thing.
We are all familiar with the Equality Act 2010, which rightly makes it unlawful for any bus operator to discriminate against a disabled person simply because they are disabled. The Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 require there to be certain facilities on board. However, there is a point at which there has to be a conversation between the two types of users who want to occupy that space on the bus, or a point at which one has to be told to make way for the other.
I do not seek to propose a solution to that tension in this debate, but I simply wanted to mention it because constituents have raised it with me more than once. Obviously, being left at the side of the road can be a source of deep distress to a wheelchair user who is not able to get to their destination. I do not need to describe to the House how bad such a situation can be. I of course hope that all bus drivers would demonstrate maximum respect for their disabled passengers, as would other passengers in such difficult situations.
I am confident that the Department is encouraging bus companies to do the right thing. I know that the bus company has had words with those responsible, and that it will do its best to discharge its duty.
I will leave the technical answer to the companies or my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench. However, I reassure the hon. Lady that I recognise what the campaign stands for—I have been on a bus journey with my blind constituent Mrs Bernie Reddington, who is a force of nature as a campaigner in her own right—and I strongly support its aims.
I want to talk about young people, who are one of the groups I mentioned, and about how bus travel for them varies between rural and urban areas. Young people in London enjoy free travel, but the choices outside London or the major metropolises—you can tell me whether that is the plural of metropolis, Madam Deputy Speaker; I only went to a comprehensive school, so I do not know what it is—can be limited or non-existent for those who need to get to college, work or wherever they wish to be.
The shadow Secretary of State has described a situation in which there is an angelic choir of Labour authorities up and down the country and then there is everybody else, but that is not what we are seeing. For example, Labour-controlled Norfolk county council is hiking transport costs for 16 to 19-year-old students. I want to say more about that because I joined the students who were campaigning strongly against that in Norfolk and very firmly backed the campaign that they had to have last year. The county council has deferred the matter for another year, so its original decision still stands.
Slashing the bus subsidy for 16 to 19-year-olds would be wrong. Students told me that even young apprentices who are earning a wage were worried about finding that kind of money, and many students do not do anything in addition to their studies to earn money. What the Labour authority has proposed will cause a genuine cost of living problem. It would hit the poorest students hardest, and it would deprive them of the choice of where to study in Norfolk, which will have a real impact on the future generation. I do not say that the solution is more spending, more borrowing and more debt, because guess who that would affect most out of all the generations?
I and fellow Norfolk MPs set out other options that the county council could have considered. The student union deserves praise for having got young people together to campaign on this issue. Young people need to be involved in politics, because not being there to present their arguments can lead to other people making decisions for them. It is wrong for the Labour-controlled county council to impose a 55% increase in ticket prices, which would hit the poorest students the hardest.
Will the hon. Lady tell the House what cuts her Government have imposed on her Labour council locally? Has she reflected on the fact that her Government have cut support for transport—including buses—by 17% in real terms since 2012-13? What is her Labour county council supposed to do in those circumstances?
It is supposed to man up and not ask for more spending, more borrowing and more debt, which—as far as I can tell from this debate—is what the hon. Lady and many of her hon. Friends are still doing. Young people must not be told that borrowing will sort out the problem, because they will only have to pay for it in due course. I have been clear on that point and am happy to be clear about it again. A county council has to balance choices between the generations, and that is what the debate was about.
Let me move on to the other generation that needs to use bus services, and give a brief mention to the pensioners with whom I have campaigned on Spixworth road in my constituency. We must ensure that elderly people can get around, and buses are particularly important to them.
I shall close my remarks by mentioning two constructive schemes that hon. Members may be surprised but pleased to hear involve Norfolk county council. One is a total transport scheme in which the council and the East of England ambulance service are working together to give people access to health services, and the second is a smart-ticketing pilot run in conjunction with the council and the Department for Transport. Many other Members wish to speak on this important subject, so in conclusion: buses do matter.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it will be obvious to the House that a large number of colleagues wish to participate in the debate and there is only one hour left. I therefore impose a six-minute time limit on speeches.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. With two thirds of all public transport journeys made by bus, we are right to talk more about the importance of local bus services, although the issue is often overshadowed by debate on rail and infrastructure. Unfortunately, my constituents do not enjoy the benefits of a rail or light rail service, and many are entirely reliant on local bus services. I hear from older residents who are left cut off and isolated, unable easily to access GP or hospital appointments, from shift workers who simply cannot get to work, and from employers who find it difficult to retain staff as a result. Families who are still struggling to make ends meet face above inflation fare rises year on year.
In 2010 I first began to campaign on the issue when local parents asked for my help to try to protect a route that had served the community for decades, but which was about to be cut, making it difficult for their children to get to school. Despite the fact that operators receive more than 40% of their income from the taxpayer, local people found that they had little to no say. The operator made it clear that although we could raise our concerns, it was under no legal obligation even to consult on changes.
The decision to deregulate local bus services in the 1980s is the primary reason for the poor state of bus services in Tyne and Wear and my constituency. The Transport Act 1985 did not deliver on its promise to increase the use of public transport, bring in lower fares, and lower the cost to the taxpayer. Instead, in the north-east a small number of operators cherry-pick the most profitable routes, and set the fare structure and bus timetables with little or no regard for integration or best value for the passenger and taxpayer. The 1985 Act marked the beginning of a great divide in our country between areas of regulated and deregulated local bus services. Since bus services were deregulated outside London, the two different systems have produced very different outcomes in passenger growth. Figures show that since deregulation passenger journeys on local bus services outside London have fallen by 37%, whereas in London bus patronage has increased by 105%. In Tyne and Wear, the position could not be clearer. Deregulation has failed: fares go up above inflation, pricing people off buses; routes are cut and needlessly changed; and whole areas are left cut off.
An investigation in 2011 by the Competition Commission was highly critical of deregulated bus services. It found limited competition between operators, which tended to result in higher fares and lower quality for passengers. The report also found that head-to-head competition for services was unlikely because of the dominance of a small number of operators. In fact, there was heavy criticism because some bus companies were accused of colluding to avoid direct competition altogether, resulting in geographic market segregation, including in my area.
Last month in Tyne and Wear, the north-east combined authority voted to press ahead with the quality contract scheme. This will create a level playing field and allow new entrants to break into the market. Part of the profits made will be reinvested into improving local services and reducing the subsidies paid by local taxpayers, while at the same time increasing passenger numbers. Over a decade, this will result in £272 million in economic benefits to the region. There will be a simple fare structure with Oyster-style integrated ticketing. Fare rises will be capped with extra help for families with children.
For three years the bus operators have been scaremongering about the prospect of a quality contract scheme in Tyne and Wear. Stagecoach’s Brian Souter claims that those of us who want a better local bus service are “unreconstructed Stalinists” and has threatened to pull out of the region altogether. Stagecoach is, however, happy to run services under London’s regulated system and there is no good reason why it could not do the same in Tyne and Wear. This is typical of the bluster and the negative campaign of scaremongering that has characterised its opposition to change. It has frequently threatened legal action in the hope that it could bully councillors into giving in. Its threats have so far failed, but it has not gone away. It is time the operators respected this democratic decision and contemplated exactly why it is that people are so dissatisfied and so angry with the service it offers.
Where Tyne and Wear is leading the way I want other areas and cities to follow. Even the Chancellor now appears to accept this case. Today, however, the Secretary of State has unfortunately refused to back the decision of the North East combined authority. In fact, in the past four years his Department has repeatedly failed to do so. What should the people in the north-east take from that? Surely if it is good enough for Greater Manchester it is good enough for us in Tyne and Wear too, where local councils have come together to work to deliver better value and a better system for the taxpayer? The quality contract scheme has been a long drawn out and complex process. I am pleased that the shadow Secretary of State has made it clear we should simplify the process and avoid vested interests being able to frustrate it.
The north-east has so much to offer but there are many challenges ahead, with the highest rate of unemployment and some of the lowest paid workers in the country. We have the capacity to make a greater contribution to the nation’s economy, but we need a transport network that supports businesses, growth and job creation. Today’s motion, and the quality contract scheme we are pressing ahead with in Tyne and Wear, is the change that our region needs to take that forward.
I am sure we all have our own examples of local bus services we would like to see improved. The F bus leaves from the bucolically named “Foot of the hill” bus stop a couple of hundred yards from my house in Leckhampton. I would like it to run later than 6.15 pm, as my surgery finishes at 7 o’clock. There are many other examples. My constituent Margaret Martin explained that the last P and Q bus from the hospital in Charlton Kings is at 15.55 pm. If she has to take a bus after that time to her house it is another hour’s walk, even in urban Cheltenham. My constituent Paul McCloskey has alerted me to the B bus service, where the Sunday service starts at 9.55 am. That is pretty hopeless for those working on a Sunday, or even for those who want to get to church come to that. However, we need to look at the big picture too.
The overall statistics are very encouraging. I intervened earlier on the Opposition Front Bench spokesman to point out that almost all the most important statistics between the most recent year, 2013-14, and 2009-10, when this Government came to office, are positive. The figure for passenger miles on local bus services was 18,200; it is now 18,500. Average bus occupancy in England was 11.6; it is now 12.4. In England outside London it was 9.3; it is now 9.9. In 2009-10, the figure for passenger journeys was 5.2 billion. It was dropping from the previous year and continued to drop the next year, but it is now back up to 5.233 billion. The figure for passenger journeys just in the south-west was 202.3 million; now it is 211.3 million. The figure for Gloucestershire was 21.5 million; now it is 21.6 million. The statistics vary from year to year—they did under the last Government and they do under this Government—but, if you will pardon the pun, Madam Deputy Speaker, the direction of travel is clear.
Those statistics are very positive and they have not come about by accident, but because this Government, despite inheriting a monumental deficit, which we have made great efforts to reduce, have protected investment in sustainable transport, through measures such as the sustainable transport fund and the green bus fund, as well as by pursuing smart card technology. My constituency of Cheltenham has benefited from £5 million, shared between Cheltenham and Gloucester, from the local sustainable transport fund—I remain indebted to my right hon. Friend Norman Baker for helping to secure that when he was a Transport Minister. That has led to improved bus shelters in the Promenade, marketing of smart card tickets, giving bus transport to apprentices—I am told that 70 apprentices have benefited from the initiative, with about 100 trips each—and personalised travel planning, which has engaged with more than 7,000 households, saving them money and reducing pollution and congestion on our streets.
That funding has also led to new pedestrian direction signs to assist visitors to find routes from public transport interchanges and new real-time passenger information systems, which are currently being installed. Most importantly of all, it has led, finally, to integrated bus mapping for Cheltenham. I do not think that hon. Members from London always appreciate how lucky they are to have an integrated system. If I have some complaints about the privatisation process that Mrs Thatcher embarked on, they are about the lack of integration of bus services, which is still a problem for us. It was never really sorted out at the time and we still need to make an effort on it, but, thanks to this Government’s local sustainable transport fund, in my constituency at least we are finally going to get an integrated bus map of all routes, showing how they all interact—although I have to say that local bus companies have not been brilliantly helpful in pursuing that themselves.
The result, Gloucestershire county council tells me, is that on weekdays we have seen an 11 percentage point drop in car usage in the share of transport modes and a 10 percentage point increase for sustainable forms of transport. At weekends, we have seen a 9 percentage point reduction in car usage and a 12 percentage point increase for sustainable modes of transport. That is a positive benefit, although that is not to say that there is not more that we can do. I certainly still have a wish list, which is topped by more integrated transport. Cheltenham borough council and the local chamber of commerce, with my support, are still campaigning for a £20 million investment in Cheltenham Spa station for increased numbers of bay platforms, better access for disabled people, more car parking and better access for buses to the station, so that it is not just a railway station but becomes a genuine transport hub.
Secondly, I really like the proposal in the Liberal Democrat pre-manifesto for a bus pass for 16 to 21-year-olds, who would get a 66% discount on bus travel. That is an important pledge and forms part of Liberal Democrat policy for the next election. Young people deserve and need subsidised bus transport, especially when they are below the drinking age or driving age, because it is an important social thing for them.
Finally, I support other hon. Members who have campaigned for talking buses, and I very much support the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association campaign on that front as well.
It is good to follow Martin Horwood, but I have to tell him that people in our part of South Yorkshire simply will not recognise the picture he draws with selective facts and figures—and it is the same with the picture portrayed by the Secretary of State about bus services in our part of the world and most parts of the country.
Local buses are the main form of public transport in Rotherham. We have no tram, and we have two train stations in a borough with nearly 250,000 people. In Barnsley, we have no tram and a small handful of small stations to serve a borough with 220,000 people. Many people rely on buses—to get to work, to college, to hospitals, to shops and to see family and friends. Many older and disabled people are totally dependent on buses to get out and about and to avoid isolation. It is, of course, the poorest who require and need bus services most.
One of the things I am most proud of during 13 years of the Labour Government is playing a big part in the Treasury in the introduction of free bus travel for all pensioners. We did that in 2006-07, and last year it was worth £37 million to pensioners across South Yorkshire, although that was £3 million less than in the last year of the last Labour Government.
My right hon. Friend should be congratulated on introducing free bus passes and concessionary fares. Does he agree with me that the boasting we have heard from Government Members about the lack of decline in bus passengers over the last four or five years is mainly down to the introduction of the free pass?
Indeed. My hon. Friend is something of an expert on transport matters. I know he immediately saw through —he told me as the Secretary of State was providing these figures—the bogus and partial picture that was painted by those statistics. Buses matter a great deal in areas such as ours. When routes are cut or changed, or services are cut and bus users complain and sometimes campaign to see the services restored.
It is always a battle in this deregulated system with the bus companies saying on the one hand that “this service is not commercially profitable”, with the local authorities or passenger transport authorities rightly saying on the other hand, “the money has been cut; we simply cannot afford to subsidise or support these services.” Too often, those with no other way of getting around—the youngest, the poorest, the oldest—lose out. I say “too often”, but not “always”.
I want to recognise how our regional director of Stagecoach, Paul Lynch, was ready to meet me to review some, although not all, of the decisions he took on the South Yorkshire routes. He was ready to change the route of the 229 in Wath and to supplement it with a rerunning of the 222 in response to a petition of 150 local residents and the campaigning of local Councillors Atkin and Gosling. He was willing to recognise that changes to the 109 and 108 were required for Rawmarsh and Manor Farm, because people were unable to get to the shops, school, the doctor’s or whatever. That service now runs again on its original route, not least because of the campaigning efforts of Christine Eyre and the Manor Farm tenants and residents association group, as well as those of Councillors Jane and Neil Hamilton.
I want to mention the regional director of FirstGroup, Mr Ben Gilligan who was good enough to meet me at the end of September about the removal of the regular service required between Ravenfield and Wickersley. He has promised to look at the case for restoring that route by flexing the other routes and timetables in the area. I urge him to be as good as his word and do just that. Residents in Ravenfield and I look forward to hearing from him shortly.
Public transport is in part a public service and it does require some public support and subsidy. My hon. Friend Mary Creagh said that support for bus services had been cut by 17% in the last three years in real terms. No wonder 1,300 routes have gone as a result. The House of Commons Library gave me figures that showed that, in the last year we have figures for, the Government were prepared to give bus services only £810 million of support in total, not including concessionary travel—and £500 million of that goes to London. To put that into perspective, Mr Deputy Speaker, and you follow these things closely, this year the cost of the tax cut for top-rate taxpayers is £3.3 billion, over four times more than what the Government are prepared to spend to support bus services in England.
I pay tribute to Rotherham council, the bus companies and the passenger transport authority for their efforts to put together a quality partnership in Rotherham, but that cannot guarantee services, reward bus companies that run good services, penalise those that do not, bring in a simple, single through-ticket system such as the Oyster card in our area, or ensure that buses are fully integrated with other forms of public transport. I know the bus companies’ case and counter-argument, but I say to them and to the House that services in south Yorkshire are not good enough at present. That is why I back, for Rotherham and Barnsley, the plan that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield has announced to legislate for city regions such as South Yorkshire and county regions elsewhere to have greater control over local bus services, and powers to determine routes, to set fares and to integrate public transport properly. The motion says that London-style powers and a London-style service are required elsewhere. That is exactly what we need in South Yorkshire.
My constituency is extremely large, with two urban centres at each end and a large rural bit in between. Fleetwood is Britain’s biggest town without a mainline railway. A modernised tram system has been completed there, but many Fleetwood residents cannot travel on it because the subsidy has been removed by Labour-controlled Lancashire county council. I want to come back to that in a minute.
Clearly, buses are key, particularly in the rural areas of my constituency. Hon. Members have talked about technology. In many rural areas in my constituency, people cannot even find a timetable for the very few buses that run. That is incredible in the 21st century. I have some sympathy with the motion because of the need to bring in technology to get the modal shift we want.
Hon. Members have talked about the needs of the young, the old and the disabled. That is even more true for the young, old or disabled people and the shift workers who live in one of the villages in my constituency and who rely on the one or two buses that do run. The problem is—I mentioned technology—knowing when the bus is coming, as people do in London, what the cost is and where the bus is going. Therefore, people do not use the buses.
How will we achieve the shift? The key to the London revolution—I pay tribute to Ken Livingstone, who realised this at the beginning—was to transfer people from private cars to buses. Not just the elderly and the subsidised but everyone else in London can see when the bus is coming at most stops and can use the Oyster card.
To be fair—Labour Members did not mention this—Boris Johnson, a Conservative Mayor, continued that bus revolution, brought in an integrated transport system through the Oyster card and brought overground mainline train services into that system. He has continued to work on that. Therefore, the system has developed and there has been success, but as hon. Members have said, that is down to the powers that existed in London, which were taken away from other areas. In that regard, as I say, I have a lot of sympathy with the motion.
I am grateful for what the Secretary of State said about the need to look at common-sense solutions, as the Chancellor has done in relation to Greater Manchester. I hope that other areas will come forward with proposals and are given some of those powers so we can get something moving. The bus service is the easiest way of transferring people from private to public vehicles. It is the most flexible method, and it provides the way in which the biggest increases can be seen. I support that, but I have a problem when it comes to supporting the motion.
Between December 2013 and January 2014, Labour-controlled Lancashire county council proposed to cut £4 million from subsidies, thus removing evening and Sunday bus services such as the 2C from Knott End to Poulton, the 40 from Lancaster to Preston, the 42 from Lancaster to Blackpool, the 74 from Blackpool to Fleetwood, the 82 from Fleetwood to Poulton, the 84 from Fleetwood to Blackpool, the 86 from Knott End to Fleetwood—and so it goes on. That was done by a Labour-controlled council. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State’s secret meeting this morning was attended by Councillor John Fillis, Lancashire county council’s transport member, and that it discussed the 89 from Lancaster to Knott End, the 7 from the Marsh estate on the edge of Lancaster to the centre of the city, the 10 from the Ridge estate to Lancaster, and the 81A and 81B from Lancaster to Wray, Caton or Hornby. All those routes are critically important to shift workers.
Does the hon. Gentleman not see the irony of his walking through the Lobbies to make massive cuts to his local council’s budgets and then criticising it for making cuts?
Does the hon. Lady not see the irony of proposing a motion which suggests that other councils should be
“able to make use of London-style powers”,
but contains not one cent of financial commitment? How would the Oyster cards be paid for? What about the massive amount that would have to be invested in machinery? This is pie in the sky. It is great pie in the sky, but money would have to be found from somewhere to pay for it. What would Lancashire do if such a system were introduced? How could the county council deal with it, given that it already wants to cut bus services?
Following a massive campaign led mostly by the parish councils but also by— obviously—myself, along with members of every political party except Labour, including my hon. Friend Mr Wallace, the county council has withdrawn its original proposal. However, it will now review each bus route separately.
I acknowledge that there is a problem with the use of rural buses, partly because of the inability to invest in technology, and I share the dream of rural bus services becoming like those in London,. However, a party less than six months away from a general election is not prepared to say how it would make the initial huge investment. If we agreed to the motion, would we be expected to pay for it by means of increased fares or increased borrowing, or to ask county or city councils to introduce even more cuts? Where is the finance to support this scheme? Although I have massive sympathy for it, I prefer the Secretary of State’s step-by-step approach. It will enable us to do what we should have done years ago and start to introduce a bit more regulation, but, before we do so, let us make clear how we will pay for it.
Earlier this evening, my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah offered us a quotation which she wrongly, but understandably, attributed to the late Baroness Thatcher, about the man who, finding himself on a bus beyond the age of 26, can count himself a failure. As I pointed out at the time, it was actually said by—we think—Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, but it is, as I say, understandable that it has been attributed to Mrs Thatcher over the years. I have made the same mistake myself in the past. I have a long-standing interest in transport issues, and that was one of the quotations that I gave to illustrate the dastardly Conservative attitude to public transport users.
The fact is that there is a class element in this debate, and we should recognise that. When I was a transport Minister, it was often said, although never minuted, that suits did not use buses. That was meant to remind me how important it was for us to persevere with the Government’s programme of encouraging the growth of tram services in parts of the country. Trams were seen as a halfway house between a train and a bus. Wealthy professional people would use a tram, but would not use a bus. The problem is that over the years, especially since deregulation in 1986, bus services have become the poor relation of public transport. According to the latest Government figures, 60% of public transport journeys are made on a bus, but I suspect the figure is much higher; it certainly has been in the past. The trains and the railways get far more press coverage than the buses, however, and trains get far more attention in this House, too, and the trains receive far more public subsidy than the buses ever have, and rightly so—we all understand the reasons why.
Importantly for this debate, buses are the poor relations once again when it comes to regulation. The disparity between bus services and railway services is no more explicitly clear than in successive Governments’ approaches to regulation, and I include the last Labour Government in that, in which I served. Trains are, of course, necessarily heavily regulated, but there is not so much regulation for buses. The Confederation of Passenger Transport said last week that it opposed Labour’s plans
“for the further regulation of bus services.”
I question that word “further”, because buses are completely unregulated. There is no regulation in the bus industry. The only requirement for any Member of this House who might want to run a bus service is to be able to afford to buy a bus, and it must be roadworthy. After that, they can run a bus service along any route they wish.
A number of cities have gone down the route of having trams, such as Edinburgh, Nottingham and Sheffield, but they are very expensive. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that money would have been better spent on supporting local bus services, which, of course, can vary or change their route rather than have to follow tram tracks?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The tram in Edinburgh was a disaster from start to finish. I was in Edinburgh over the Edinburgh festival period, and I saw for myself the much-heralded trams and was extremely excited that there was a passenger on one of them; that encouraged me. I do not think trams are the solution, therefore, but bus services are absolutely vital, because buses are the transport mode of choice of most people. They are flexible and relatively cheap compared with the infrastructure we have to invest in for trams and trains.
Outside the capital, there is no regulation of the bus services at all, however. The bus industry has done a good job. I do not want my party to jump on the bandwagon of attacking the whole bus industry because it is entirely private. It is entirely private, and it should remain entirely private. Nobody on this side of the House is saying we should return to the ridiculous old days when local authorities owned bus companies. We do not want to go down that road.
What we are saying is that, because it is such an important mode of transport, it should be regulated. There is nothing wrong with that. The private industry has done some very good work on fares and smartcard ticketing, although I have to say I think the Secretary of State was just a little ungenerous in his comments about the progress that the last Labour Government made on smart-ticketing and on accessibility of vehicles.
Since the railways were privatised in 1995, the number of passengers using the railways, during what was a period of economic growth, has gone up to a remarkable extent—I cannot remember the precise figure, but the rise in that time is between 40% and 50%. It has been a real success story, at least in terms of the number of people using the trains.
Why has that not happened for the bus services? Martin Horwood and the Secretary of State were incredibly complacent in saying, “Ah, well, in the last year there was a 1% increase in passenger numbers.” What is the number of people using the buses today compared with 1985? That is the figure we should be looking at. With a 1% increase a year, how many years will it take to get back to the level we were at in 1985? That is what we have to explain to our constituents.
Why have passenger numbers on the buses not been increasing at the huge rate the trains have been enjoying? After all, bus services are flexible. If a bus company wants to increase capacity, it buys a bus, whereas doing the equivalent in the train industry is massively complicated with massive lead-in periods. The bus industry is far more flexible, so why has it not taken advantage of economic growth to increase the number of passengers, as the train industry has done? The simple answer is because it is not run well and because it is not regulated outside the capital. The passenger increases that have happened since 1986 have happened exclusively in the capital, where deregulation did not take place.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I do not think those of us who were pointing to the increased numbers overall were being complacent. I quoted statistics from the south-west and Gloucestershire which suggested that things are at least heading in the right direction. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that we should all be more ambitious for bus travel.
I wonder whether those figures would be moving in the right direction were it not for the introduction of free bus travel for pensioners. Take those figures out and where are we with passenger numbers? I suspect that even last year’s 1% increase would be non-existent.
I want to say one last thing. This is not a debate about Scotland, but I stand here envious of my English colleagues. We have the prospect of a Labour Government next May, and of regulated bus services throughout England. If only that were the case in Scotland. Successive Scottish Executives, led by the Labour party and now by the Scottish National party, have refused to re-regulate the buses. In Scotland, for some reason, SNP Ministers do not want to introduce regulation. I cannot imagine why. What is it about the anti-regulation arguments of multi-million SNP donor Brian Souter that Scottish Ministers find so persuasive? I hope the example the next Labour Government will produce will cause Ministers in Scotland of whatever political colour to change their minds.
It is clear that Mr Harris is an optimist, looking forward to a Labour Administration next year. I cannot say I share his optimism on that.
Opposition day debates inevitably result in Opposition parties choosing a subject for debate in which they can make what they hope will be points that resonate with their voters, and attack the Government. I have to say that if that was the aim today, it has been a pretty weak attempt. We all recognise the importance of bus services: they provide access to work, hospitals and leisure facilities; and it is important that we mention that they provide essential services in rural areas and are vital to the countryside economy.
Do we need more regulation in order to achieve a solution? Of course, the Labour solution is always to produce more regulation. I am not wholly opposed to regulation—I recognise that some is necessary, and as long as the system works and is affordable, that is fine by me—but the key to better bus services is surely co-operation between local authorities and the private sector: it is partnership working.
I query the reference that was made to the loss of 1,300 bus routes. I suspect that some routes have in fact been merged, and I can give a number of examples. One of my own local authorities, in co-operation with Stagecoach, has just gone through that process.
We have heard that Opposition Members want London-style powers to make improvements. Of course, one cannot plan bus services in Cleethorpes, Barton-on-Humber or Fleetwood in the same way as those in our big cities, most notably London. Big cities are very different from the provinces and rural areas, and need different solutions. Is it seriously suggested that bus services under the control of cash-strapped local authorities will produce stable or even lower fares, better services and newer vehicles? What we need is bus operators that are prepared to innovate with ticketing initiatives and fare schemes.
Partnerships do work. I was a North East Lincolnshire council cabinet member for a number of years, and my brief included transport. I was involved in a number of quality partnership arrangements and here, I congratulate the previous Labour Government. One of those initiatives was the Kickstart scheme, which I believe was initially developed by Stagecoach and taken on board by that Government. A Stagecoach document states that the Kickstart scheme was
“driven by the entrepreneurial expertise of bus operators, who carry the business risk and have an incentive to grow passenger volumes, rather than by local authority planners.”
The document acknowledges:
“Central and local government already play a key role in developing non-commercial, socially necessary bus services by working in partnership with bus operators and providing public support.”
In that way, improvements can be made. It goes on to describe Kickstart as a concept involving
“a contract between the bus operator and Government which commits to a specified level of service linked to an agreed public investment profile” and the risk being
“carried by the bus operator, rather than perpetual subsidy”.
I am sure that we have all had experiences in our constituencies of battles to get a grant to keep a particular service running for two or three years, knowing that we will get the political brickbats when the grant runs out. Such services are usually unsustainable without some cost to the public purse.
Schemes such as Kickstart, which put the onus on the operator, are therefore crucial. The Stagecoach document goes on to state:
“The Kickstart fund would cover the difference between the projected revenue and cost of the project. However, the risk would be borne by the bus operator, so that if passenger volumes and revenue do not rise in line with projections…the bus operator would…absorb the loss.”
That is key, particularly in these cash-strapped days.
There are risks attached to subsidy. Any form of subsidy could tempt the less-than-scrupulous operator to, shall we say, adjust the figures to show a less profitable or unprofitable situation. The operator could then go to the local authority, which would feel obliged to say, “Yes, we can’t do without that service because the village would be cut off”. The subsidy would duly arrive, and a year or two later—or perhaps just months later—the operator would come back and say, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to stop the service in the evenings and on Sundays because the subsidy just isn’t enough.” This would, in effect, be a form of blackmail for the local authority.
We are all familiar with phone-and-ride and dial-a-ride schemes. These are community initiatives that are usually set up by local authorities, sometimes in partnership with bus operators. They are an essential lifeline for members of the public, particularly those who are disabled or who have difficulty accessing essential facilities. Certainly—
Unfortunately, it quickly became evident that, for a number of reasons, bus deregulation had not worked, particularly in the major metropolitan areas. For example, Greater Manchester quickly found itself in a situation in which 96% of bus services were being provided by just two operators. Bus fares went up by dramatically more than the rate of inflation, and dramatically more than they did in London. In the first 20 years after deregulation, passenger numbers plummeted from 355 million journeys to 218 million, a fall of 137 million journeys. It was obvious at that point that deregulation was not working in the major metropolitan areas. I agree with the Secretary of State that we cannot have a one-size-fits-all solution. The bus services in Oxford, Cambridge and the other historic cities seem to work quite well, but in major metropolitan areas such as South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Leeds and Birmingham, the system has not worked.
We do indeed, and I will deal with why the deregulated system does not work. Partly it is because on-road competition cannot work, as there simply is not enough space for the buses. When competition has been tried, it has led to massive congestion.
Let us look in detail at what has happened in the major metropolitan areas. The bus companies have gamed the system. They have not responded as one would expect in a competitive private sector area, by responding to what the customer wants; they have responded to where the subsidy is. So networks have contracted, as the companies could make a bigger profit on the major routes; and services have been withdrawn, so that the companies could get direct subsidy in franchised systems and larger amounts of money. It is a fact that every bus that goes out of a depot has a 50% subsidy attached to it, one way or another. This is not a private competitive market responding to customers; it is a private market responding to a subsidy regime.
So I am not surprised when Martin Griffiths, the Stagecoach chief executive, says something like the following, although his nose must have grown a great deal when he did so:
“The truth is that England’s city regions have significantly lower fares and higher customer satisfaction than London, as well as having access to frequent, integrated bus services and smart ticketing.”
I do not know what he was on when he said that; the bus fares are higher, and they have regularly increased by more than inflation and by more than increases in London. We know why Stagecoach is happy: it has been extraordinarily successful at gaining the subsidies.
I have no objection to business people making a profit for providing goods and services, and doing it well. The fact is that Brian Souter and his sister have made £1 billion. Does anybody think that has come from providing a better service and improving our bus services in the major metropolitan areas of this country? Of course it has not. It has come from knowing how to get to the subsidy and how to move the bus services in order to get there. That partly shows the answer to the point raised by Eric Ollerenshaw about where the money will come from. The capital return on investment in buses in the English regions is twice what it is in London. Why should the people I represent in north Manchester be giving Stagecoach and First Group twice the profit because they are operating in a deregulated system? If we put this out to proper competition in a franchised system that was open and fair, so that the more competitive bus company won, those profit levels would go down to a level similar to that in London, and with some of that money we would be able to improve the service. The only evidence we have of a franchise system within England, Wales and Scotland is the one in London, and it managed for the first 13 or 14 years after deregulation, when the companies were regulated, to run services with very low fare increases and maintain the number of passengers, whereas in the rest of England the numbers decreased by 50%. Those companies managed that without subsidy, so I think that in the metropolitan areas we, too, would have a better service and we would not be going to the Exchequer for more money.
I will finish with a plea. I was delighted with the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement about Greater Manchester and what he was saying about re-regulating the buses. This is not an ideological battle and nor should it be one. The fact is there is a simple way of improving services in the major metropolitan areas, which is by making it easier to have a London-style system and allow franchises. That would help everybody.
Interestingly, we seem to be hearing arguments in favour of quality contracts being imposed by central Government. I am not sure whether that is what the Opposition are after, but it seems rather odd to take away local authorities’ decision making. Buses are extraordinarily important, as everyone who has spoken today has said. The question is what are we going to do. I was interested to hear Mary Creagh express her admiration for TfL, but the idea that we could somehow magically roll out that model across the rest of the country seems a little ambitious to me.
As we know, people are usually disabled more by their environment than by their physical condition. We have seen in rural areas a disabling of young people who do not have much money; they are unable go anywhere or do anything because they cannot afford to drive a car. That is why it is so important to promote the policy of making it affordable for young people to be able to take a bus, as my hon. Friend Martin Horwood talked about so ably.
However, there are difficulties. How do we provide a bus service in an area where one large bus might have to travel several miles with only one passenger on board, and how do we make that affordable? That is the difference between subsidies for London buses and subsidies for rural buses. A subsidy for a London bus means that most of the time it will have a significant number of passengers, whereas the same subsidy for a rural bus means trying to make up for the fact that at times it will have no passengers on board. The situations are so different that they cannot possibly have the same solution. The further we get from a major town, the truer that becomes, and when we get to some parts of Somerset and Cornwall the whole situation has changed completely.
There are some answers: more bus shelters; bus shelters with areas for bicycles; feeder routes, with smaller buses feeding on to larger buses; and using local voluntary groups to try to fill the gap, as my hon. Friend Martin Vickers explained. However, we definitely need to look at totally different solutions for rural areas, rather than thinking that we can impose a policy that works in urban areas. Part of that is obviously about devolving more decision making to local parish and borough councils. However, we cannot simply sit in this House, click our fingers and have a solution for rural bus services. It is more important to look for a solution there than to look for it anywhere else, because there are no alternatives and the distances are far larger. A person in a city can walk 2 miles for a job, but there is no way someone in the country can walk 10 miles for a job.
Another consideration for disabled people, particularly blind people, is the lack of audio-visual solutions on buses. For some extraordinary reason, every bus company quotes thousand and thousands of pounds for the cost of retrofitting a bus in that way. We know that we can get quite a simple system to make announcements of that sort. My noble Friend Baroness Kramer has set up an audio-visual competition—we will have the results soon—to come up with a solution to make it far cheaper to retrofit buses. That is something the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association supports. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will take note of the results of that competition and help us roll it out across the country.
Returning to quality bus contracts, they can pose a significant financial risk to local authorities, and it seems that nobody arguing for them today has mentioned that. It could also squeeze out small companies, and I think that it is vital that we encourage small companies to take part in this. My personal preference is for quality partnership schemes to allow for the best aspects of a quality contract without the risks and reduced competition for smaller companies. I commend many of these ideas to the House. I would like to see a cross-party investigation into how buses can be improved, rather than argue about whether to have a quality contract, a quality partnership, less regulation or more regulation. We need a solution, not an argument.
I call Pat Glass. It would be helpful to Front-Bench spokesmen if she could shave a minute off her time.
I thank my Front-Bench colleagues for securing this debate, which is incredibly important to people in constituencies such as mine. We spend a lot of time in the House talking about important things that do not have a direct or immediate impact on the lives of constituents, so it is good today that we are talking about something that is having such a disabling impact on the everyday lives of my constituents. They simply would not recognise the rosy picture that the Secretary of State and some Government Members have tried to portray today. The more I speak in or listen to debates in the House, the more I realise that we are living in two countries here. Ministers either live in or think in terms of London and either do not recognise or do not care about what is happening in the rest of the country.
I listen every week to the Prime Minister talking up the economy, saying that unemployment is reducing, but the gap between his rhetoric and the reality for my constituents is immense. The number of people who are unemployed or under-employed continues to rise in my constituency and in the north-east generally. To tackle the issue of jobs in the north, we need a transport infrastructure that supports job creation. That is not just large, grandiose schemes that Ministers like to talk about in the House and love to be seen opening. It is about things like buses that make people’s everyday live workable and stops older people becoming increasingly isolated.
Government cuts in the north have hit councils such as mine massively. My county council has lost a third of its budget. If we lost a third of our budgets, we would lose the roof over our heads. It is ironic that a number of Government Members have criticised their local councils while going through the Lobby to cut council budgets massively. In counties such as mine, as soon as the cuts were announced subsidies on buses went. That meant that communities in largely rural constituencies were left with no buses at the weekend and after 6 o’clock in the evening. If a bank holiday falls either side of a weekend, some communities can be left without a bus for almost a week. That cripples people’s lives.
Constituents have told me that they have been sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions because they cannot get to a job interview because there are no buses. That is just cruel. That is the sort of downward spiral that affects people’s lives every day. Far too many of my constituents are on zero-hours contracts and one lady told me that she can be called into work at any time. Often that means working the shift from 10 o’clock in the evening until 6 the next morning. If she wants to get there, she has to walk 3 miles. She does her shift and then has to wait either three hours for a bus or walk home again. That is the daily reality of people in constituencies such as mine.
Having no buses has a daily and negative impact on people’s lives in large rural constituencies. People cannot get to work if they do not work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Young people cannot get to school and colleges and take the courses that they need and which our economy needs them to take. They cannot socialise in the evenings and at weekends, and that does not just apply to young people. Local health services and GPs are worried about older people becoming more and more isolated in their homes. They have free bus passes but they have no buses to use them on.
Our neighbouring authority has decided that enough is enough, and Tyne and Wear voted in the last couple of weeks to have a quality bus contract. I understand that the Government fought it every inch of the way on this, and penalised it at every point. The bus companies in my part of the world know exactly where the Government’s allegiances lie—they lie with the bus companies that are making massive profits, and not with the people who use those buses.
The Government should be on the side of the people and not of the massively profitable bus companies. Like the big six energy companies, the rail companies and the water companies, the bus companies are making massive profits out of the British public, and they know that they can rely on the support of the Government in that. The people of this country need a Government who stand with them. Let us hope they get one in 2015.
Despite the Secretary of State’s rather Panglossian presentation, the contributions to today’s debate have shown up the failings of our bus network outside London—failings that need correcting now. Members outlined the challenges that we face, and endorsed this party’s belief in the great potential that an energised, accountable bus network could offer people across England, bringing some relief to their cost of living and transport crises.
We have heard excellent contributions from those on the Opposition Benches today, not least from the Chairman of the Select Committee who skilfully deconstructed the myths of deregulation; from my right hon. Friend John Healey who has passionately raised issues with his local operators; from my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson who has done likewise; and from my hon. Friend Pat Glass who pointed out that a third of Durham’s budget has gone missing under this Government. In a measured and thoughtful contribution, my hon. Friend Mr Harris talked about the decrease in the number of bus journeys since deregulation in 1985.
I say with some hesitancy that the Secretary of State has simply got his figures for outside London wrong. In 2010, the figures were £2.401 billion, compared with £2.291 billion in 2013. The previous Labour Government started the process of revaluing the bus services that had been deregulated and largely disregarded by the Thatcher and Major Governments. I remind him that in 1997, the Government subsidy for bus services stood at less than £1 million. By the current decade, it had risen to more than £2.3 billion. This Government did not inherit a situation in which buses were a second-class service with a disintegrating network and fleet of vehicles. Sadly, the coalition Government’s double whammy—savage cuts in Department for Transport spending, the 20% cut in operators’ and local government grants—shows that they have been indifferent to those effects. They have retreated to a silo vision of what the bus can do rather than see it as the inclusive driver of economic growth that it should be.
In most areas across England, this coalition Government’s strategy is failing. I have already said that outside London, bus use has reduced and fares have risen by 25%. On-road competition is effectively non-existent in many cases, and the Competition Commission has estimated that the broken market is costing taxpayers up to £300 million a year. Rather than different private companies, or even Whitehall, taking decisions about public transport, our plans would put local areas in the driving seat. Currently, no one is able to provide consistent information to passengers on their bus services or to monitor the performance of bus operators effectively since this Government stopped the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency collecting data on punctuality and left transport commissioners with restricted powers to penalise operators who do not provide such data.
Local co-ordination could include measures to support disabled passengers in franchising agreements, but while this Government have dragged their feet on that process, we will have to do that at local level and build on the excellent accessibility campaigns of Guide Dogs for the Blind, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Whizz-Kidz, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and others.
My hon. Friend Graham Stringer a former distinguished leader of Manchester council, gave the Government a timely reality check on the issue of hunt the subsidy. That is the answer to Members on the Government Benches: they should start believing in the principles of competition instead of supporting and succouring people who run the present system on subsidy. That is the issue before the House today. I brought this matter up in a debate in Westminster Hall less than a month ago, and my hon.
Friend Mr Wright provided us with an example. The deregulation system often promotes crude, crazy cartels or de facto monopolies with inefficient bunching on the most used routes and little is done to expand usage on new routes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, 45% of that is dependent on subsidy. My hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne echoed that point in a series of excellent interventions.
My hon. Friend Gloria De Piero outlined the case of a local woman studying for a degree in hospitality who is unable to take a job in the city’s hotels because the bus services finish so early that she would not be able to get back home. That built on what my hon. Friend Andy Sawford said in his excellent debate in Westminster Hall in June when he quoted a constituent whose local buses stop at 7 o’clock:
“you can’t go to the theatre, adult education, swimming…visit friends, support elderly relatives…anything!”
The constituent added that even though there are medical centres open late in town,
“you can’t have a late appointment if there isn’t a bus running that late. It’s like living under curfew”.—[Hansard, 17 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 34WH.]
I heard a similar story when I visited Staffordshire this year and heard from our local campaigners about the people who are losing out the most.
Often it is not just individuals but whole communities who are left isolated by inadequate bus services. I have heard from our candidate in Redcar, Anna Turley, about the village of Lazenby. The village used to be one stop on a profitable route, though it required a detour from the main road to reach it. The bus operator has decided to cut out this inefficiency, and with it, the village. Local people on the minimum wage who are having to hire taxis are now paying the price. Those are just the kinds of short-sighted, damaging decisions that communities in charge of their local transport will be able to overturn. Profits will be pooled and reinvested so that, in the interests of all local people, we can unlock the economic growth that comes through access to skills and jobs.
I do not have time, I am afraid.
Access to affordable transport shows up time and again as a major concern for young people, whether in National Union of Students surveys or in what they have told me in Blackpool in schools and colleges, and at listening events.
Our policies will promote opportunities for people to shift from using cars for short journeys to public transport—that can be a key element in our climate change commitments. They will help in rural areas, where the elderly often experience services being cut and, as a result, have to pay for a taxi to the theatre, which costs 10% of their weekly pension. They will help to bring local authorities and local enterprise partnerships together and engender a real localism, alongside our bold pledge to deliver £30 billion of devolved funding to local authorities in the next Parliament. By engaging with business at every stage, we will make sure that transport, and buses in particular, help to create this virtuous circle, working with LEPs, chambers of commerce and others in a common endeavour. Greater local controls over services such as transport are part of our fundamental response to the English question. Unlike this Government, we do not believe in just one or two initiatives to cover up the reality that their Departments continue, too often, to work in centralised silos.
Labour’s proposals also offer opportunities to communities and local authorities whereby outside visitors—be it to seaside and coastal or rural and inland attractions—are key ingredients of their economic prosperity. These changes will boost people’s confidence in inputting their views. Thanks to the previous Labour Government, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South, we are seeing the benefit of this—in Blackpool, for example—and we will see it even more under the new system.
I am sorry that I did not get to make this point in the debate. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that young people in particular are incredibly affected because this Government took away the education maintenance allowance? The cost of buses in Liverpool is so prohibitive that young people are unable to make choices about their education as they cannot choose colleges that are, in effect, too far away because too many bus routes are involved.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She makes a point that she and other Labour Members have been fighting for.
Let me linger for a moment on the word “bus”, which derives from “omnibus”, the great innovation of the Victorian city. “Omnibus” means “for everyone”, but apparently the bus is not omnipresent in the hearts or minds of this Government. Their DFT business plan does not even mention buses by name, and the Transport Secretary’s recent speech to the Tory conference had just a two-word reference to the bus. That is the difference between them and us, and the difference between their policies and the biggest initiative to devolve power and opportunities to communities across England in 100 years. We get it; they do not. They do not see the transformational power that could come with integrated local transport systems. They have not seen the bus as a key agent of change to revitalise our public spaces. Our devolved vision is not only more integrated, but comes with more money—three times as much.
This Government are bequeathing the people of England a fractured landscape in the NHS, in skills and in transport, but we are embarking on a journey to empower people and places across England to work together, and we are placing the bus at the centre of that, as has been done so well in London. Ours is a promise and an opportunity for all—for coast and countryside, for small towns as well as large cities, for north and south, for rural areas and suburbia—and the Labour party will deliver it.
As I survey the Labour Members, particularly those on the Opposition Front Bench, I do not do so in anger or even in sorrow; I do so in pity. I know that many Government Members will think that I am being too generous—they would like me to be more critical—but
I would say that surely all but the hardest of hearts can see the Opposition’s pitiful past record, their pitiful performance and their pitiful prospects.
That brings me to the motion, which was moved and given life—I would not say that it was given light, but it was given life—by the shadow Secretary of State, Mary Creagh. I have always liked her since she was a Back Bencher. I remember that in those days she still had promise.
The motion might have referred to the £930 million provided by this Government for concessionary travel entitlement every year. It could have referenced the Government’s £600 million local sustainable transport fund. It should have mentioned that bus fares in England have had an average annual increase of 1.51% under this Government compared with 2.25% each year under the previous Labour Government. It might even have mentioned that the Government funded more than 900 new low-carbon buses during our first two years compared with just 350 in the 13 years that Labour was in power.
My hon. Friend will know that Nottinghamshire is dear to my heart; indeed, some would say that it is etched on my heart. He will know that the Trent Barton 141 bus, which runs between Sutton, Mansfield and Nottingham and stops at Blidworth, has been reduced, and that the N28 bus from Blidworth has a revised timetable and, outrageously, no longer stops at Newark hospital. Nottinghamshire county council—now under Labour control—has brought about that eventuality. Oh my goodness, how we look back with awe and regret at the passing of the benevolent county council controlled by the Conservatives under Mrs Kay Cutts, my former colleague on that council.
Benjamin Disraeli may have been prescient when he lamented
“how much easier it is to be critical than to be correct.”
In trying to be correct, Martin Horwood did us a service. He made it absolutely clear that, directly contrary to what the motion indicates, bus occupancy has risen and passenger miles on local bus services are up, yet the motion is predicated on the very opposite assumption.
We fully understand that buses are essential to many of our fellow citizens. We are of course conscious of the difference they make to access to opportunity. The shadow Secretary of State was absolutely right about that. When I heard Pat Glass say that she lived in one world and I lived in another and that mine was the world of London, I thought she should come to South Holland in Lincolnshire because it could not be less like London. My rural constituents depend on buses to get to work, school or other facilities for their very well-being. The kind of people who depend on buses are those like my mother-in-law in Nottingham. She has never been able to drive and has used a bus all her life. Do not tell us that we do not know or understand. Not only do we represent people who rely on buses, but our families and friends rely on buses too.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Opposition care so passionately about buses, they will encourage their colleagues on Labour-controlled Nottinghamshire county council, whom I am meeting next week, to reverse some of their striking cuts to rural bus services throughout my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Mr Spencer? Those cuts are isolating people in rural areas, and they are finding it difficult to get to school and work—exactly the problems that Labour is trying to address.
I know that that Labour county council has cruelly cut the bus services to places such as Dunham-on-Trent, Egmanton and East Bridgford—villages that I know well and that are ably represented by my hon. Friend, who has made such a stunning impression since he was elected to this House. Buses are critical for people without access to a car. Some 49% of bus trips outside London are made by people with no access to a car—a point made by my hon. Friend Martin Vickers and the Secretary of State, who spoke so ably at the beginning of the debate. A well-run bus service is crucial for older and disabled people, and I take on board comments from across the House about disability, and particularly about talking buses. I make a commitment to the shadow Minister that I will look again at that matter and do all I can to put right what is wrong, if further steps can be made.
The Government’s expenditure on buses reflects our commitment to them. In the 2013 spending review we protected bus spending until the end of the 2015-16 year, despite the pressure on public finances and tough economic times. Almost £1 billion has been spent this year on funding concessionary travel entitlement. Four rounds of the Green Bus fund have provided £89 million to support the purchase of 1,240 new low-carbon buses, and some £300 million in funding for major bus projects has been allocated in the past year.
I am almost embarrassed, Mr Deputy Speaker, to go on dismantling, deconstructing and demolishing the Opposition’s arguments. [Interruption.] Well, I did say “almost”. This year has seen the devolution of £40 million in bus service operators grant funding, which is now paid directly to local authorities rather than bus operators. Again, I hoped the Opposition would have welcomed that because it gives communities more control. As the Chancellor announced this week, in a move welcomed by some Manchester MPs, an elected mayor will be created in Manchester with strong powers in the city region, and they will—one hopes—be able to effect the sort of positive change that the Mayor of London has done for this great city. That is proper devolution, not mere rhetoric, and the Secretary of State described it as a massive and positive step to allow for a more integrated, co-ordinated transport strategy in the region.
I take the point made by the Chair of the Transport Committee that we need to look more closely at the integration of services—as various reports by that
Committee have argued—and we hope that Manchester will be just the first of the major cities to take advantage of a greater devolution of powers.
Investment in technology, improved ticketing, new infrastructure, and concessionary travel—giving passengers more of what they want.
Let me conclude this debate in the spirit of Christian pity with which I began—I signal my conclusion so that the excitement can build as I move to my exciting peroration. I know that opposition can be a testing business and that there is a temptation to exaggerate. I appreciate that Opposition parties facing failure are likely to become less reasonable, but I cannot believe that Labour could not do better than the meandering hyperbole of this motion. It is a kitchen sink motion that has cracked and needs plunging. As the Minister responsible for maritime skills week, allow me to throw the Opposition a lifeline: don’t go down with the ill-fated captain on a sinking ship.
I have received a report from the Tellers in the Aye Lobby from the earlier Division at 4.11 pm. They inform me that the number of those voting Aye was erroneously reported as 248 instead of 238. The Ayes were 238; the Noes were 287.