The Bill presents a unique opportunity to improve bus services, tackle congestion, support local economies and boost regional growth in my constituency and in Greater Manchester more widely.
The benefits of franchising mean that Greater Manchester will have the ability to decide the routes, frequencies, timetables and quality standards for buses, as well as a Mayor to hold to account should the service falter—all things that London has and takes for granted. That will particularly benefit people living in areas—especially rural areas—where current bus services are unreliable. Providing these franchising powers only to local authorities with directly elected mayors will ensure that there is a decision maker to hold to account, although other authorities without mayors will not necessarily be excluded and will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The Conservative devolution agenda has the potential to be hugely beneficial to those areas included, especially because of the ability to apply joined-up thinking to planning and other areas of governance. Unfortunately, I am not convinced at the moment that the leadership in Greater Manchester is taking the opportunities presented. The Greater Manchester spatial framework has recently been published, and it seems to have been done in complete ignorance of the needs of public transport and of people right across Greater Manchester. It seems designed to optimise urban sprawl and the consumption of our green spaces so that councils can gain the maximum council tax receipts, but it shows little to no evidence of how best to use public transport infrastructure. Bus companies cannot economically operate frequent services from early morning till late at night if their passengers are spread thinly over large areas. We just have to look at where public transport works best, which is in areas of high population density, to know that. The authors of the GMSF need to take the opportunity of the Bus Services Bill to reflect on the needs of public transport and to take serious account of the contributions to the GMSF consultation. Essentially, the current proposals need to be shredded and the whole process started again.
Good public transport infrastructure has many benefits in relation not just to housing and planning but to improving jobs and employment, including supporting young people to get into work. When I recently chaired the all-party group on youth employment, many young people compared the opportunities and transport links in London and the north of England. Poor public transport in the north is a barrier to their getting into work. With an ageing population, many of whom reach a time in their lives when they are no longer able to drive, is it more important than ever to ensure that vital services are connected to good public transport and, because of their comprehensive nature, especially to buses.
I met the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in my constituency, and I note that Alan Brown took the blind walk, where you are blindfolded and follow the guide dog. That is a disorientating experience for anyone, although, after a few minutes, you get some idea of what you are doing and you get that trust and confidence in the guide dog. I am really pleased that we have now made progress on audio-visual provision, and hearing about it certainly had an impact on me, as it does on anyone else who has spoken with the association. The association briefed me on the importance of visual aids for not just blind people but those with partial sight loss. This is about giving people far more independence than they have at the moment. Sight loss is a significant barrier in daily life, in daily experiences, and in getting and retaining a job.
I am pleased that the Bill allows enhanced partnership schemes between local authorities and bus operators, to require all buses in a local area to provide audio and visual next-stop information. Authorities using the new bus franchising powers will also be able to place similar requirements on affected operators. It is particularly welcome that the Government have, in clause 17, amended the Bill to enable the Secretary of State to require service operators to make such information about audio-visual aids available to passengers. However, I want the new Mayor of Greater Manchester to use these powers to ensure that all users have an improved service—not just people with difficulties with sight but those who may not use the bus services regularly. I will be lobbying the new Mayor to make sure that all buses in Greater Manchester use AV—no matter who the Mayor might be, whether Sean Anstee or one of the many other candidates.
The provisions on joint ticketing make it much easier to introduce multi-operator and multi-modal smartcards and e-ticketing, making bus travel easier and more convenient—the starting point for wider application across the whole of the public transport network. Colleagues may be interested to know that the benefits of integrated multi-modal smart ticketing was the subject of the Science and Technology Committee’s evidence check web forum on smart cities. From its introduction—from the very beginning—it is necessary to collect and interpret travel data so that further improvements can be made to Greater Manchester’s public transport system. Again, I intend to raise this with the new Mayor of Greater Manchester and Transport for Greater Manchester.
The Bill’s requirements for open data on fares and real-time running means that passengers will be able to access details of timetables, fares and routes in a much simpler format, putting an end to the frustration of not knowing when the next service will turn up. This has the potential to be further developed into passenger information apps or websites giving door-to-door real-time travel information and live updates on the status of bus routes, as Transport for London currently does through one of the largest automatic vehicle location systems in existence. AVL allows real-time passenger information, service control, and performance management. I would like to see this and smart ticketing used in Greater Manchester in future, following bus franchising.
However, I do have some concerns about the Bill. The Government must ensure that small and medium-sized bus operators are able to compete in a franchised environment. It is encouraging that the Bill includes a requirement to ensure that franchising authorities consider in their procurement strategy how to facilitate smaller operators. I hope that as well as considering this in their strategy, local authorities will ensure that there is a wide range of service providers—often innovators coming in with new ideas for new routes, who ought not to be excluded from franchising.