Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:25 pm on 1st March 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:25 pm, 1st March 2017

As you do. This being south Manchester, Eric Cantona was playing chess at a nearby table. I was sitting with my girlfriend watching empty bus after empty bus go past the window along Wilmslow Road. I was a recently elected councillor, and enthusiastic, and I began to hold forth to my girlfriend about how we really needed regulated buses like they had in London because deregulation was not working. [Interruption.] The relationship did not last, people will not be surprised to hear. Twenty years later, Café Renoir is no longer there, sadly; Eric Cantona is now, bizarrely, a movie actor; my girlfriend, I am glad to say, is happily married to someone else, with four fine children; and we still do not have bus franchising in Greater Manchester.

I am very proud of the achievements of the Blair-Brown Government. We should never forget, particularly people in my party, how we rebuilt public services in cities and towns across the UK after 18 years of neglect. I am very proud of that record. However, we did not get everything quite right, and that includes public transport management.

In Greater Manchester, we have been asking for London-style bus franchising powers for many years. That is why I am very pleased today to welcome this Bill, and most especially the bus franchising powers, because, as we have heard, deregulation has not worked for Greater Manchester. Since deregulation, bus use has fallen from 355 million passenger journeys a year to about 210 million passenger journeys a year. The system is confusing for passengers. We have 22 different bus operators running about 440 general bus services, and each of those operators has its own branding. The quality standards of the buses are inconsistent. The variety of fares and the pricing structure is confusing. We have 140 types of bus tickets across the Greater Manchester region, and passengers have to pay a premium for a ticket to use across different operators.

It does not work in serving our communities, either. In my constituency—at the end of my road—we have what is often claimed to be the busiest bus route in western Europe. I have never been able to verify whether that is the case, but what is not in doubt is that it is a busy and profitable arterial route through to the university and the city centre. Because of that, bus companies are competing for passengers and, as we have already heard, that competition is not always a good thing. Bus companies are running dozens of buses every hour—sometimes full, sometimes empty, but it is always chaotic and always congested.

At the same time in my constituency we have had cuts to services such as the 44 bus, which served Didsbury, and the 84, which served Chorlton. That leaves communities isolated. The Broad Oak estate in Didsbury and the Arrowfield estate in Chorlton are no longer served, cutting those communities off from access to their local hospitals and to local services. That is no way to run a public service. I am pleased that proper bus franchising will give us the opportunity to design a system that serves our communities properly.

I mentioned confused pricing, and I am also looking forward to our being able to simplify ticketing and introduce an Oyster-style system. Since I have come to this place, I have realised that one of the great things about London is the Oyster system. A similar system would be fantastic for Greater Manchester because it would integrate our buses with our other great transport, such as our fantastic Metrolink system.

We have been asking for these measures for some time and we are ready to implement them. We welcome the Government’s clear commitment to introduce them. I agree with the House of Lords and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Transport that these powers should not only be available to mayoral authorities—they should be available to others. However, if the Government are going to reverse the Lords amendments, which would be unfortunate, I urge them not to delay giving powers to the mayoral authorities and not to water down those powers.

We need the powers proposed in the Bill and we need to get on with improving the transport system in Greater Manchester, because we have a willingness to prove the model. We can make it work. We have the capacity and willingness to deliver. We can make public services better for the people of Greater Manchester if we are given the opportunity.

Transport for Greater Manchester is concerned about the recently published guidance on how the system will work, which appears to be pretty opaque and confusing. On Transport for Greater Manchester’s behalf, may I repeat the calls from my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)? Once the consultation on the guidance is complete, we need greater transparency and clarity, particularly on the question of the compelling powers that my hon. Friends mentioned—I will not repeat their points.

Finally, I welcome the opportunity to make our bus fleets more environmentally friendly. We know that 40,000 people die in this country prematurely every year as a result of poor air quality. It is a silent killer and vehicle emissions undoubtedly contribute a great deal to that problem. Air quality on bus routes is often a problem, so if we can set better minimum standards for buses, we can help to tackle those dangerous emissions and prevent those early deaths.

We have a growing population in Greater Manchester and we need a transport system that can cater for that growth without leaving our communities too reliant on private vehicles, both to support the economic growth that we are successfully generating and to safeguard the environment. This is a welcome Bill and an important step in putting right some of the problems we have had for the past 30 years. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham when he is elected as the Labour Mayor to design a system that works for all the people of Greater Manchester.