Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:12 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Ben Howlett Ben Howlett Conservative, Bath 4:12 pm, 1st March 2017

My hon. Friend is a stalwart campaigner for rural bus services, particularly in Bury St Edmunds. I know the area quite well from when I was growing up.

My area of the west of England is a mixture of Bristol, smaller cities and towns such as Bath, Thornbury and Yate, and rural areas. We have decided that, by increasing the scale, a franchising model would work in our area, because we would be able to integrate all bus services across a larger area and increase the economies of scale. Given the financial pressures that all local authorities are under, we would be able to ensure that the efficiencies are spread over a larger area. We would probably be able to subsidise many more of the routes that are already in existence and pass the benefits down to the passenger by introducing smartcard ticketing. Enabling more people to use the service would hopefully mean that prices ultimately fall. That change could happen because of the Bill.

Smartcard ticketing would bring benefits to my constituents, who use a variety of transport, often across authority borders. My constituents would definitely be more encouraged to rely on public transport for journeys from Bath to Bristol if they needed only one ticket, or ticket type, for the bus to the station, for the train to Bristol and then for the bus from Bristol to their place of work. An integrated system would be the holistic opportunity that we have been missing for a long time.

I recognise what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport said earlier about doing this on not just a regional basis but a national basis so that we can see larger economies of scale and larger interconnectivity between different devolved areas, particularly between the west of England and the west midlands.

Smartcards and contactless payments have made a dramatic difference to way that Londoners travel, and it is about time that that benefit is spread outside the south-east. The changes are likely to see an uplift in the use of public transport and, ultimately, an increase in the revenue that local authorities receive from it, covering any initial cost of installing the new systems.

I am pleased to see provisions in the Bill to require bus operators to provide accessible information to passengers. Many of my constituents have made representations to me in support of Guide Dogs talking buses campaign, which asks for audio-visual equipment to be installed on all buses to ensure that more people, no matter whether they have a disability, can rely on buses with confidence. For people with a visual impairment, getting on a bus is one of the most difficult things, and I know that the Minister has been working hard on this area, as has the entire Department. The Bill takes this issue into consideration, which is incredibly welcome. Without this equipment, passengers with sight loss have to ask the bus driver to tell them when to get off and they run the risk of missing a stop, which can be distressing and potentially dangerous. Hon. Members may wish to take up the opportunity to take a blindfolded walk or bus trip, and I recommend that they do so, as it is inspiring. The Bill requires bus operators to provide audio-visual information indicating the route, the next stop and the final destination. Members on both sides of this House must support that important development, which will make journeys for blind and partially sighted people easier and less stressful.

One problem we face in my constituency is controlling the amount of tourist buses that circle our city, and I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on this. Bath is a beautiful city, so it is not surprising that people want to visit it and see the sights from an open-top bus on a warm summer’s day—or a rainy day, as is often the case, given the west of England’s local climate. The local authority needs to be able to regulate these buses to ensure that their impact is not detrimental to local residents who rely on traditional buses. With the introduction of a new enhanced partnership scheme responsible for traffic regulation conditions, Bath & North East Somerset Council could have to renegotiate the traffic regulation conditions, which have worked well for more than 10 years, tackling environmental issues that had previously been exacerbated by buses. I know that this is an intricate regulatory issue, and I have already made my representations on it, but I cannot stress enough that city-centre residents in my constituency could face problems with multiple tourist buses going round and round in a circle and causing huge congestion and pollution, as we could end up with the law of unintended consequences coming into play. It would therefore be incredibly welcome if the Minister could confirm in his closing remarks how Bath & North East Somerset Council could go about keeping this arrangement, while also being able to benefit from some of the new powers.

Finally, I turn to the part of the Bill that will give powers to new directly elected mayors, such as the one in the West of England. The powers will allow them to take greater control of their services, as Transport for London does in London, with a budget to match. At the moment, there is discussion as to the best use of the transport budget: whether it is best to use it to provide free bus travel for young people or to introduce a smart ticketing operation across the West of England.

I hope that Front Benchers will deal in their winding-up speeches with the question raised by my hon. Friend Chris Green on the costings of free bus travel for children. It is one thing to propose that for 16 and 17-year-olds in Manchester, but our West of England Labour candidate has promised to introduce free bus travel for all children. We have yet to see any costings for that, and it is a hugely expensive operation. Just in Bath & North East Somerset, the smallest of the three authorities involved, we are talking about £11 million. With a devolution deal of £30 million each year going forward, it seems that the entire budget—the entire devolved operation—could end up being subsumed into one uncosted commitment; although this may sometimes politically be beneficial, it may not be a funded commitment. We will need to be aware of that, so any costings that could be provided from either Front Bencher would be incredibly useful.

I wish to reiterate my support for the introduction of a smartcard ticketing system across the West of England area, and I hope the Minister will join me in that. Our West of England mayoral candidate has made a commitment on that. Such a system would give residents and visitors to the area the freedom to explore more with an easier, simpler ticketing system, just as we benefit from the schemes working in London. This much-needed Bill will further improve the use of buses around the country, and I look forward to supporting the Government on it later as it progresses through Parliament.