Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:54 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 3:54 pm, 1st March 2017

I was on a bus last Wednesday. Yes, I do know where that quote comes from but, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, the focus is on what we are doing today. To be blunt, if bus deregulation was such a bad thing, Labour Governments had 13 years—I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was in the Cabinet—in which to change the system.

Things have moved on with public transport, and sometimes we need to be careful about instantly ascribing cause and effect. Car ownership, and particularly households owning more than one car, has increased hugely since the early 1980s. We can debate whether that is a good thing. In many parts of urban built-up areas that were designed for no vehicles, the fact that households have multiple vehicles has created a range of problems. That has inevitably had an impact on how many people use a bus in such an area, but that is not to say that we should not wish to have quality transport systems.

When we talk about bus priority measures, I am loth to look at how they could apply everywhere. They can make sense in congested urban centres, but they will not make a huge difference in parts of Torbay. We do not have a major central business district or a huge morning rush hour. Local authorities need to be able to choose what makes sense for their areas, rather than our coming up with an arbitrary idea and thinking that if something works in one area, it will automatically work in another.

I can remember dealing with operators in the west midlands. We often heard members of the public refer to the fact that buses were running empty, and we made the point that those services were being run not by the council, but by a commercial operator. I told them that it would be a bit bizarre for me to write to the operator demanding that it provided fewer services around my ward to deal with that problem.

Before services had to learn how to operate commercially, there was an issue with the tight regulatory structure, as it made adaptation and change difficult. For example, there would be services to factories that did not exist anymore, or those that did not reflect new and growing populations. Although it is important that we give areas—particularly mayoral combined authorities—the powers to shape services and integrated transport networks, we do not want to go back to the days when, in theory, a committee would argue for half an hour about exactly where a bus should run through a local housing estate. That is not an appropriate plan for the future.

We have heard lots of references to local services in this debate. I hope that the Bill will help councils such as the Torbay unitary authority to deal with situations such as the one that we are having with the Local Link services. A small bus company—it is not the main provider in Torbay—has announced that it will withdraw all 16 of its services from 1 April. It did that not following consultation, but by putting the relevant notice in to the transport commissioners. The services do not operate on the main routes, but they do provide social value, particularly for the elderly population. When we analysed the services, we found that 83% of passengers were using the concessionary bus pass scheme. That is perhaps not a huge surprise, given the demographics of Torbay, but it was quite surprising to see just how much pensioners valued the services, particularly buses 60 and 61, which serve Preston, and 62, which serves Cockington village.

I hope that the Bill will give councils the opportunity to work with operators. I know that Torbay Council is already working quite constructively with an operator—I have been asked not to name it publicly—to try to find a solution to the problems on many of the routes. We are also looking at bringing on board a not-for-profit model. The Torbay Community Development Trust is looking at how it can provide services, effectively as a social enterprise. Some of the routes will provide enough to enable it to wash its face—cover its costs—but will not provide any form of commercial return. That is why this debate is both timely and welcome, because we can see what is happening in Torquay and Paignton today, and I am able to stand here as the local MP and look at possible solutions.

Although the Government will look at individual cases when it comes to franchising powers, I hope that such powers are automatically given only to mayoral or combined authorities. Some people in Torbay might think that we could run our own bus services but, in reality, we would inherently be dependent on neighbouring areas.

It is also right that we should know the name of the person who can take decisions so that we can hold them to account—they might be Andy Burnham or Councillor Anstee in Greater Manchester in the near future. People should be aware of who those people are. That situation is very different from that of the old integrated transport authorities. If we had asked people to name the chairman of the authority in their area, most would be unable to do so. There would be less direct accountability for people serving on those authorities because they were indirectly appointed by local councils. There was not the ability for someone to say, “Actually I voted for this person,” or, if they did not vote for them, to say, “This person was elected”—I suspect that I might have that experience if I lived in one or two of the areas concerned.

This is about holding someone to account for how they use their power, rather than power being handed to a local authority in a similar way to under the quality contract scheme, which was not a practical thing to use and not of an appropriate scale. Likewise, decisions will not be made in a back room by people who might have an indirect mandate, but one that is not as strong as the mandate of a directly elected mayor.

I very much welcome the Bill. Obviously there will be a fair amount of debate as it goes through Committee and its remaining stages, but I welcome the general tenor of today’s debate. This is a Bill whose time has come. We can all debate whether it is on time and, indeed, whether more transport legislation is just round the corner—