It is a pleasure to follow Jeff Smith. I feel I should apologise for not talking more about Manchester. Fabulous place though it is, I think that it has been well-represented in the Chamber today so, instead, I will talk briefly about the importance of buses to rural communities, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), who is no longer in his place, and for Witney (Robert Courts), among others.
Just last week I met the Frome and villages bus users group, chaired by the indefatigable Peter Travis. Like many such groups, it faces the challenges of rural areas—thinly distributed populations, some routes with little use at certain times that are busy at other times, and buses that are empty for much of the day—but the bus is a vital amenity for many people for work, school, or health care visits and to combat rural isolation.
Buses may not appear to be the most glamorous form of transport—they are perhaps more functional than glamorous—but they make a tangible difference to the quality of life in rural and other areas every day. One constituent, whom I know very well, lives on the outskirts of Frome and relies on the bus to see her husband in the Royal United hospital in Bath. In her case—there are endless examples of this—without the bus service, it would be quite impossible for her to function properly. Despite the relative importance of one or two other Bills going through Parliament at the moment, I must say that the Bus Services Bill has every right to stand up against them as a keenly anticipated piece of legislation.
I joined colleagues last year in asking for the £250 million bus service operators grant to be protected, and I was pleased that that commitment was made. Some 42% of bus operators’ income comes from public funds, and although those funds are extremely welcome, the rural west country in particular still faces enormous and continuing challenges. Ministers both in this House and in another place have emphasised the latent economic potential that can be unlocked by better bus services. The key point is that, on top of the issues of rural isolation and the need for people to travel for school or healthcare, there are also economic benefits for a whole host of reasons in specific areas.
As I see it, three key areas are particularly vital for rural bus services. The first is co-ordination between operators, passengers and local authorities. The new powers in relation to franchising and partnerships are very welcome, but it is important to note that places where there is no trend of declining bus usage are often areas where there is much more and much closer co-ordination in such relationships. The Government are absolutely right to reflect that reality in their approach to the Bill, which represents a real advance in pushing forward and in pushing for a more coherent strategy. It seems, however, that many of the franchising powers are available only to mayoral combined authorities. That is a real worry for Somerset, in large parts of which the desire for a directly elected Mayor has been conspicuous by its absence. I will come back to this point later.
Secondly, clear communication is very much at the heart of the Bill. The democratising of information will allow people to make informed choices about their travel and to make travel choices using real-time information. We are giving rural communities the same access to information, so that they are armed with the same tools as passengers in London. That can only be positive.