Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee 2:33 pm, 1st March 2017

I agree with my hon. Friend that the cost of bus services often deters people from using them, which indicates that the promise of deregulation has not materialised. We were told that competition would bring down costs and fares, but that simply has not happened.

In England, outside London, we have seen a long-term decline in bus passenger numbers since the deregulation of the bus services market in 1986. Since then, operators have been able to run bus services on the routes of their choosing, with the frequency and fares that they feel appropriate. The result is that we now have a two-tier system outside London. Commercial operators, especially the big five companies that dominate the market, run profitable routes and, as the previous Transport Committee found, a lack of competition means that they are failing to provide an adequate service in many areas. Routes in those other areas have often been funded by local authorities, which have often stepped into the breach if socially important services are not commercially viable.

Local authority budgets have been cut in recent years, which has taken its toll on the provision of local bus services. Indeed, since 2010, funding for supported bus services in England and Wales has been reduced by 25%. Our inquiry heard that, in practice, whole villages and towns have been cut off from their neighbours, but this is not always about villages and towns because estates or whole areas of a city or town can be cut off. That prevents people living in those areas from having reasonable access to jobs and training, or being able to get on with their life.

One problem with the current system, as hon. Members have said, is a lack of integration and proper information. Passengers are offered a confusing variety of tickets covering different operators. Different fares are set and various technologies are used, and timetables are not always properly accessible to people who want to use buses. Accessibility is an important aspect of making bus services attractive. People will use buses if the services are there, if they feel that those services are reliable and if they have proper information about what is available, but too often that simply does not happen. The fact that timetables are not integrated with those for other modes of transport is another problem.

Integrating different modes of public transport is important for reducing congestion and addressing the important issue of air quality. We need more integration of our public transport services—that is what most people want—but the current system does not facilitate that. There are alternative models to the two-tier system of deregulation, and London is the most prominent one. Patronage across the capital has doubled since 1986 and, on average, fares there have been lower than in other city regions. The system that is operated in London might not be suitable for all parts of the country, and certainly not all local authorities would want to take it up, but the situation there shows that when appropriate powers are given to local authorities to work with the private sector, which provides the actual buses, the system can work.

Some attempts to reform the system that began operating in 1986 have brought about improvements, albeit limited ones. Our inquiry was given examples of innovative partnerships operating around the country. For example, the west midlands bus alliance has benefited passengers through integrated timetabling and joint ticketing, and FirstGroup told us about a successful partnership in Bristol. I am sure that there are many other examples of partnerships on offer under the current system that have made things better and been able to address some of the problems.

However, those achievements have been few and have come too slowly, and some parts of the current framework are clearly not fit for purpose. Members have mentioned quality contract schemes. They were introduced to give local authorities the opportunity to implement a system similar to franchising if they wanted to do so, but no such scheme has ever been implemented. As has been indicated, it might be that no authority wanted to do so, but I do not think that that is the case. The system that was set up—not by this Government but by a previous one—was so complicated, complex and convoluted that in practice it was difficult to implement, so authorities simply did not attempt it.

I am glad that the Bill has had such widespread general support. It is the latest in a series of attempts to address the problems created by bus deregulation—I believe it is the third such Bill to be presented to Parliament since that time. The Transport Committee looked at the Bill in general and examined its details, including the changes made by the other place. We support the Bill and most of what is in it. We support the general principle of local authorities deciding the structure of bus services that is most appropriate for their communities. That structure might be a deregulated market left as it is, or it might be about partnerships, franchising or setting up a municipal operation. Our report on the Bill states clearly that we would encourage local authorities to look at each of the possibilities sequentially to see which is the most appropriate to address problems in their area. The question we should be asking now is: how will the Bill improve the situation? How will this Bill put in place something different from what has gone before? How will it make things better? Let me say at the outset that this Bill is a much more comprehensive approach to improving bus services than either of the previous Bills because it looks at the system as a whole and the improvements it suggests are much more substantial and comprehensive than before.

The Committee heard powerful testimony about the difficulties faced by people with visual impairments when using the bus, and we commend the Government’s commitment to introduce regulations on improving audio-visual provisions. In particular, we heard evidence from Jacqueline Juden, a guide dog user, who described graphically the problems experienced by visually impaired people when using buses. The latest information shows that only 19% of buses provide reliable next-stop audio-visual information, with most of those being in London. I was appalled to read evidence from Guide Dogs saying that its survey found that 32% of visually impaired people using buses had missed a stop because they were too worried to inquire about where they were. It provided the equally horrendous and surprising statistic that 28% of drivers had refused to tell these people that information. Hon. Members have talked about problems when people do not have enough access to information and data. We wholeheartedly welcome the Bill’s provisions to make those much more available, as that is very important.

Let me turn to the structural changes proposed in the Bill, as amended in the other place and as the Secretary of State intends to take it through this House. Will those changes make a substantial difference? The provisions as amended—even before that—will make a welcome, positive change. The Bill offers stronger powers for local authorities to work with private operators and for new forms of partnership—advanced quality contracts, enhanced partnerships and franchising. We were very concerned about the Department’s failure to publish regulations and guidance when we considered the Bill, as that impeded scrutiny. It was very wrong that that was the situation, but since that time changes have been made, and guidance and some regulations have been published. However, it appears from that guidance that even authorities with a directly elected mayor, which are eligible for franchising—the Secretary of State confirmed that again this afternoon, as the Government do not propose to change that proposition—would have to make what the regulations call a “compelling case” for franchising to the Minister.

May I ask for clarification about the position? The Committee did not have that information when we considered the Bill, and we were concerned that we did not know what the regulations and guidance would be. I must ask the Minister what that provision means. Does it in any way cut across the commitment, which was repeated today, that areas with directly elected mayors would be able to opt for a franchising system if they want to do that?

We are still unclear about whether transport authorities without a directly elected mayor will be able to have franchising if they feel that that is suitable for their area. I sense some ambivalence in the Secretary of State’s comments. It is clear that he does not want franchising powers to be held in areas outside those with directly elected mayors, although I understand that a separate agreement has been made in relation to Cornwall. However, the guidance is still in place, so what exactly does it mean? What kind of application could be made by local transport authorities outside areas with directly elected mayors? Would the process be complicated, meaning in effect that these areas would not get authorisation? What is going on, and will this be very confusing?

Our inquiry also heard about the deep frustration that communities feel when bus services are cancelled without proper notice being given. We therefore very much welcome the provision in the Bill that will allow the designation of bus routes as community assets. That would mean that the cancellation of a route could be delayed while alternatives were considered, which we think is a very good idea. We also looked at the question of whether municipal operators should be set up, and we felt that, in general, local transport authorities should be able to have the system they think appropriate for their areas. We certainly recognised that there could be conflicts of interest, but we felt there were ways in which those could be addressed. We did not think it was right—we felt it was disproportionate—to say that no new municipal operators could be set up.