I am pleased to speak in support of the Bill. As several hon. Members have said, it is all too rare to have a whole afternoon in the Chamber devoted to discussing buses, even though they account for many more journeys on public transport than our railways. Buses rarely get the attention they deserve in Parliament or, indeed, in the media, yet for many of our constituents, they are vital, linking them to jobs, services, amenities and, just as important, family, friends and a social life.
There are few places in the country where buses are more important than Nottingham. Our city has the highest bus use per person of any city outside London, and patronage is still rising. That did not happen by accident; it is the result of sustained political commitment and leadership over decades. I am incredibly proud of our city council’s work, often in partnership with local bus operators, to encourage and increase walking, cycling and public transport use. I will say more about the lessons that can be learned from Nottingham’s experience shortly.
I admit that it came as a surprise when the Government announced that they would provide the option for combined authority areas to be responsible for running their local bus services, because Ministers had long opposed such powers as unnecessary. The change of heart is welcome. Giving local authorities more powers to plan and manage local bus services will bring real benefits to local communities. We have heard from Government and Opposition Members about their aspirations for that.
As many Members have noted, it is more than 30 years since the Transport Act 1985 deregulated bus services in England outside London. On Second Reading, the then Secretary of State for Transport said that the purpose of the Bill was
“to halt the decline that has afflicted the bus industry for more than 20 years.”
He argued that competition would deliver the improvements that passengers wanted, including lower fares. Competition was to be the key to improvements and to increasing patronage. He said that the Government would not sit idly by while the industry was sinking, leaving more people isolated. Instead, they offered
“a full-scale rescue plan for the bus industry.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 73, c. 192 and 199.]
If only the outcome had been as grand as his claims.
Competition did not deliver the improvements that the then Ministers promised. Across the country, buses continue to receive very high levels of public support, with 41% of the industry’s costs met by subsidy. As the Competition Commission found, genuine competition between bus companies is rare beyond occasional and disruptive “bus wars”. In too many areas, the market does not provide comprehensive networks, forcing councils to fund additional services where they can still afford to do so.
Thanks to strong campaigning, London was protected from the 1985 Act, and could therefore build a planned, integrated network, with competitive tendering for routes. That, combined with other factors, some of which are unique to the capital, meant that bus use increased dramatically—by some 227%—since 1985-86, in contrast to the decline in patronage nationally. In 1985, one in five British bus journeys took place in London. Today, the figure is one in two. That is great for Londoners, but not for passengers in towns, cities and villages where services have been cut.
That promise of lower fares has not materialised either. The average bus fare rose by 45% in real terms between 1995 and 2016, with significant regional variation. While fares in London rose by 36% over that period, in other metropolitan areas, they rose by 60%. Since 2010, the subsidised socially necessary services provided by local authorities have borne the brunt of the huge real-terms reduction in Government funding to local authorities. As the Campaign for Better Transport has consistently revealed, 46% of councils reduced their spending on such services in 2013-14, and a total of more than 2,400 services have been cut or withdrawn, particularly affecting rural and isolated communities. The simple fact is that the market and on-road competition have not delivered.
The Bill presents an opportunity for local transport authorities to select from a wider and more usable range of powers to improve bus services as part of planned and integrated transport networks, including the power to franchise services. The ability of the local authority to invite tenders to run bus services has been available in theory for more than a decade, but the quality contracts process has proved too cumbersome and complex to use, although I pay tribute to Labour councillors in the north-east who were brave enough to try.
It is vital that the new powers are workable and practical to implement. The process and any guidance underpinning it must be unambiguous, clear and transparent. Most importantly, the full range of powers should be available to all authorities, even if they choose not to use them. Like many Labour Members, I am disappointed to hear that the Government intend to reverse changes made in the other place to reinstate the restriction of the measure to mayoral combined authorities. If the powers to provide better bus services are good enough for Bolton, Birmingham and Boscastle, why are they not good enough for Boston, Bournemouth and Beeston, and other towns and cities beginning with other letters of the alphabet?
That is not to say that I believe that franchising is the only way to improve services, or that it is a panacea. In places such as Greater Manchester, there are already well developed plans to utilise the new powers—I look forward to seeing them in action. Other areas are considering the range of new options, but the ability to deploy franchising will undoubtedly focus minds in any partnership scheme negotiations.
Not only cities need all the options. Hon. Members have seen how Transport for London has used its powers, but as I mentioned, Jersey is an interesting and successful example of bus franchising. There are examples from across Europe where tendering for services is the norm. The ability to pool funding and cross-subsidise less profitable but socially necessary routes by linking them to more profitable ones could be of great value in rural areas.
I have no hesitation in claiming that my local area has the best public transport system in the UK, and without doubt the best buses. I recognise that hon. and right hon. Members often make grand claims for their constituencies, but in this case I can provide reliable evidence in the form of the Transport Focus bus passenger satisfaction survey. I will not dwell on it today, but it is no coincidence that our tram system is also outstanding. The survey shows that 94% of Nottinghamshire passengers are satisfied, very satisfied or fairly satisfied with their bus journey. That is the highest in the country. I suggest that, if the survey were limited to Nottingham city, the figure could be even higher.
There are three key reasons for Nottingham’s public transport success: consistent political leadership, our outstanding municipal bus company and the presence of an excellent private sector operator. David Warburton suggested in his speech that buses were not glamourous. I invite him to come to Nottingham to travel on a Trentbarton bus, with its leather seats, wood laminate floors, free wi-fi and USB charging sockets. They innovatively show how immensely glamourous buses can be. One difficulty we face in persuading people to travel on buses is that their memory is of their last school bus, which was probably old and rattly, and not a very pleasant experience. The new buses in my city are a million miles away from that experience.
Over several decades, Nottingham City Council has demonstrated a clear vision for transport in the city and a willingness to support that vision with investment in measures that make public transport an attractive and realistic option. Bus lanes and bus priority measures, good bus stops, good shelters, real-time displays and clean, environmentally friendly vehicles have all played a part. While the vast majority of bus services are run on a commercial basis, the city also has a range of tendered services providing links to the city’s hospitals, university campuses, major workplaces, local district centres and the city’s park-and-ride sites.
The workplace parking levy has enabled Nottingham to continue to invest in this network, which is now served by Europe’s largest electric bus fleet and operated by partners, Nottingham Community Transport. The benefits of the new buses are clear. They cut carbon emissions, improve air quality, reduce traffic noise, result in cost savings and, by getting more people riding, ease congestion.