I warmly welcome this opportunity to debate bus services in the Chamber; we too seldom have an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the bus network for millions of people and to acknowledge the crucial role bus services play in our public transport system.
As has been acknowledged already from both Front Benches, buses provide a crucially important lifeline for millions of people, including people who choose not to drive a car and those who cannot afford to drive a car. We should also recognise the importance of buses for the elderly, many of whom feel that they no longer want to deal with the risk of driving a car or can no longer afford to do so. For all sorts of reasons, therefore, we in this House need to do all we can to support our bus networks around the country. I pay tribute to all the people involved in delivering bus services and helping us get to where we need to be.
I am enthusiastic about much of this Bill, but I do have worries about clause 4 and the changes made to the Bill in the other place. I warmly support the provisions in clauses 7 and 8 to facilitate the delivery of smarter ticketing technologies, which, as has already been acknowledged, can do so much to make bus travel an easier and more convenient and attractive option.
I also welcome clauses 1 to 3 and 9 to 15 on partnerships. Partnership-working between local authorities and private sector bus operators can be a highly effective way to improve bus services for passengers. There is a long list of successful examples from around the country, including places such as Sheffield and Bristol. The extension of the statutory partnership structure beyond the provision of infrastructure to include general bus improvement measures makes sense, and is an important part of the Bill. It is also a welcome step forward to enable statutory partnerships more easily to cover larger areas and have a more joined-up approach between different operators.
It is also helpful to make the Competition and Markets Authority a statutory consultee. Its current status as a powerful but somewhat unpredictable presence outside the partnership process can be a barrier to ambitious measures that both the operator and the local authority might sincerely believe are the right way forward. Giving it a more formal role internal to the process can help generate the certainty needed to support investment in measures to improve bus services for passengers.
As I have said, I am worried about the effect of clause 4 and the proposals to grant local authorities the right to specify bus services. We have heard a lot about the comparison between London and the rest of England, and it is true that in London bus routes, timetables and fares are specified by Transport for London and then tendered out to the private sector bus companies for delivery under contract, but London has unique circumstances.
There is a range of factors in London that contribute to comparatively high levels of bus usage, which are simply not present in most of the rest of the country: the scale and density of the population; relatively low rates of car ownership compared with other areas; millions of visitors; very high costs for parking in central London; a pretty aggressive approach by successive Mayors to bus priority measures; and a congestion charge that generates very significant sums to support the bus network. So while I do not see any need to change the regulatory system that operates in London, I do not accept that expanding that system to other parts of England would deliver the same high levels of ridership in places where the circumstances are very different. Indeed, the regulated bus network in England before privatisation in ’86 was simply not delivering great quality services for the customer, nor a thriving a bus industry, and it would be a mistake to look back on it with too much nostalgia.