Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:59 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 2:59 pm, 1st March 2017

It is worth going through a little history to put the Bill into perspective. Although I support this Bill, there is one real sense in which I, as Labour MP, think it is not necessary. The fact is that since the Transport Act 1985 was implemented in 1986, virtually every Labour Member has seen it as a catastrophic failure for people who use buses. It saddens me that a Labour Government did not bring forward a better Act than the Bill before us now. However, the Government have brought this Bill before us, and it is worth supporting.

Given what the Secretary of State said about reversing the Lords amendments, it is worth remembering why we have this Bill at all. It came about because the then Chancellor, Mr Osborne, had discussions with the chief executive of Manchester City Council, Sir Howard Bernstein, who retires this month and to whom we should all pay tribute for progressing this item, which will undoubtedly improve buses. The then Chancellor recognised what many of us had been saying for some time—that this country would be much better off economically if we made our major cities work, rather than depriving them of resources and of allowing them to run their transport system in favour of the economy and people who live in the area. Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese persuaded the then Chancellor, and we now have this Bill before us.

It was always an ideological position of the Conservative party, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Chipping Norton, that it wanted a complete free-market approach to buses. However, the Government conceded that they would allow reregulation if combined local authorities agreed to have an elected mayor. That negotiation was entered into and agreed. One has to bear that in mind when the Government say that they will reverse the Lords amendments. I agree with that in principle, but I would not like to lose the Bill, given that a negotiation happened and an agreement was put in place between local authorities and the Government that will improve life for many people I represent and for many in mayoral combined authority areas.

I will go through two major issues. First, the right hon. Member for Chipping Norton gave the argument for the exceptionalism of London or, to put it another way, “It’s okay for us in London. You lot can get on with it.” [Hon. Members: “ Chipping Barnet.”] I am sorry; if Mrs Villiers were in her place, I would apologise to her. She put forward three arguments as to why London should have something that the rest of us cannot. One was that it would bring uncertainty to the bus companies. Well, there would probably be a bit of uncertainty for the bus companies, as they will have to compete in a different way to run services, but my prime interest and concern is for the passengers who, for the past 31 years under the deregulation Act, have only had six weeks’ notice—in practice, sometimes less—of bus services being withdrawn. Part of the Bill takes some of that uncertainty away from passengers, so that argument does not stand up, particularly if our priority is the passengers.

To be completely straightforward, I did not understand the right hon. Lady’s second point, which was about the renationalisation of the buses. The Bill is not about renationalising the buses. It is primarily about reregulation in metropolitan areas. Although I accept the deal, and allowing local authorities to set up municipal bus companies was not part of that deal, I do not think it would do any harm for local authorities that saw the need for it to have the right to set up municipal bus companies, particularly if the private sector moves out, as it has threatened to do on a number of occasions if the Bill goes through.

The right hon. Lady’s third point was about the finance that goes into London from the congestion charge. The really important thing is that there was a period between 1986 and 2000, when Ken Livingstone won the London mayoralty, when there was effectively no subsidy. There was certainly no congestion charge for there to have been subsidy. There was no loss of bus passengers in Greater London over that period, whereas the number of bus passengers plummeted in the west midlands, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, and Bristol. The figures fell by two thirds in South Yorkshire and by half in Manchester, but without the subsidy from the congestion charge, the passenger figures in London remained the same. The arguments of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet against this Bill do not stack up.

It is worth taking a deeper look at how the deregulation has worked, why it does not work and the flaw in the arguments in support of it, for those who still support deregulation. When the legislation was introduced—incidentally, I have sadly been around long enough to have campaigned against the introduction of the 1985 Act—the argument was that competition would improve the bus services because bus services were run by municipal authorities that had monopolies and were not providing the best possible service. I do not believe, as the Opposition have been accused of believing, that that was a completely utopian, golden age. It was not; there were flaws. Many bus routes in South Yorkshire, which my hon. Friend Mr Betts talked about, and in Greater Manchester and Merseyside, were still running on the schedules and timetables of the old tram system. They did not respond quickly enough to the changes in population after slum clearance. There were faults, but there were night services, people could get across the conurbations to see their parents on Saturdays and Sundays because there were bus services, and people could get to work early in the morning or late at night after shifts. All that has disappeared. So, no, it was not a golden age, but it was a much better service than is being provided by the private sector.

It is important to understand why the competition that was supposed to deliver has not worked, and it has not worked for two reasons. Where there was severe competition, as there was in south Manchester, Preston, Edinburgh and other places, bus companies went head to head and really had a go at trying to run the other bus company off the road. Those places got not a better service, but terrible congestion. Cities centres were blocked up. The system did not work where there was severe competition, but that was very rare. The Competition Commission did a study in 2011, finding that there was virtually no on-the-road competition. Supplementary evidence shows that there was very little competition because companies in the London system—as much as the bus companies’ accounts can be understood—were getting a much lower rate of return on their capital than companies elsewhere, although it still enabled them to invest in new buses.