Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Jonathan Reynolds Jonathan Reynolds Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury) 4:05 pm, 1st March 2017

I rise with gratitude and optimism regarding the presentation of this Bill to the House of Commons. The powers that the Bill will grant to Greater Manchester, and its effects on services in Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley, Dukinfield and Longdendale, are sorely needed and long overdue. I am extremely grateful to the leaders of the 10 Greater Manchester councils for negotiating these powers. They include Sir Richard Leese in Manchester and Councillor Kieran Quinn in Tameside. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for honouring the deal struck by the former Chancellor with those leaders when the Greater Manchester devolution settlement was first agreed.

As we have already heard, some Conservative MPs will find this an unusual Government Bill—it is one to which they might be instinctively ideologically opposed. I want to set out why the powers are pragmatic, why they are needed and why, if we all want better local bus services, as we all do, the House should come together and pass the Bill.

I am a great believer in better transport. When I look at London, I see a labour market that is open for employment to more than a fifth of England’s population because the city’s transport system is so good, and I want that for the north as well. I argue regularly, often with some success, for major transport projects in my own constituency. The Mottram bypass—a £170 million road scheme—has already been agreed by the Government, the trans-Pennine rail electrification is under way, and there is a possibility of a trans-Pennine tunnel and perhaps HS3.

Those big projects are important, but anyone who knows anything about transport is aware that the vast majority of local public transport journeys are made by bus and that the present system just does not work outside London. Services are infrequent and expensive, there is poor signage, and the buses take cash rather than electronic payments. There is no joint ticketing between bus companies, let alone joint integrated ticketing between buses and trams. The big bus companies are sensitive to this, but the data are stark. After deregulation, bus use outside London plummeted, whereas in London, where deregulation was not pursued, it has soared. However good the intentions of bus companies might be, they cannot give the public what they need under the present system. Fares cannot be standardised, because that would breach competition law. They cannot be flat within a certain zone, for example, and joint ticketing just does not exist.

In addition, there is no public accountability or public certainty. I am sure that I am not the only elected representative in this Chamber who has experienced, either as an MP or a local councillor, a crucial local bus service being withdrawn or amended. When our constituents get in touch about such changes, the truth is that there is effectively nothing we can do about it. People need to be able to depend on those services. They need to know that they will be able to get to work from the place where they live. We should ask ourselves why local tram networks are so sought after and have such an impact on house and land prices, and one of the answers is that they offer transport certainty. No one worries that a tram will be withdrawn at short notice or following a six-week notification period, but the same is not true of local buses. The lack of meaningful competition means that even profitable bus routes get chopped up and amended to make them more profitable, which makes coherent transport planning impossible.

Travelling by bus is also expensive. The last time I got a bus in the morning from my home in Stalybridge to my constituency office in Hyde, the fare was about £3.60. That is for a journey of less than three miles, so the cost per mile is more than first-class rail travel and some flights to the Canary Islands. Unless we improve bus services outside London, I can honestly see technologies such as Uber killing off local public transport rather than private car use.

As a northerner, these next words are particularly painful for me to say, but I am extremely envious of London’s frankly superb bus network. It is good value, reliable and frequent. No cash is involved. Tickets are integrated across all forms of public transport. Buses are modern and accessible, with space for up to two pushchairs. For someone like me who has lots of children, there is even space for a double buggy. The system is easy to understand. In my first year as an MP, when I was new to London’s public transport, I came back from the Labour party conference in Brighton late on a Sunday night. My train arrived at Victoria station and, because I am fairly tight, I did not want to get a cab back to the parliamentary flat in Lambeth, so I set off walking. As I got adjacent to a bus stop, I saw a bus coming, and I could check the signage at the stop in a split second to see where the bus was going. I knew that I could get on it, I knew that did not need cash or a ticket, and—we underestimate this point, because it is useful for not only people with disabilities or a visual impairment—I knew when to get off the bus because it told me where I was. If a stranger tried to do the same thing after arriving late into Manchester Piccadilly station, they would have no way of easily getting such information. Who knows where they could end up? If things went particularly badly, it could be as far away as Liverpool.

I know that London has a much higher population density and that it gets revenue from the congestion charge—we rejected such a charge in Manchester in what was another poor referendum experience for most of us—but London’s system is better and we should just try to copy it. London’s model clearly works and that is all I want for my constituency. A similar system is used by almost every other major European city. By allowing the new Mayor of Greater Manchester to have such powers—I am delighted that my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham is taking part in the debate—the Bill will be a huge step forward for our public transport system. Once we have the basis for a better-run system, there will be a significant improvement in public consent for engineering works, bus priority lanes and priority junctions because people will see a system that works for them. I also think that passenger numbers will improve. Although bus companies are wary of such powers, they stand to gain a lot from these things happening.

I warmly back the Bill. I hope that it is taken forward through all its parliamentary stages with a pragmatic spirit that will address the real shortcomings of what we have now, and that it delivers the better bus services that my constituency and all other constituencies are crying out for.