Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:40 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh 4:40 pm, 1st March 2017

It is interesting, is it not? I read the Second Reading debate and that point was put to the then Secretary of State many times, and, Kuala Lumpur notwithstanding, there was no other evidence to support the major changes. I seem to remember that there are plenty of rickshaws in Kuala Lumpur, but I do not know whether he was including that in his argument.

That Secretary of State and his Government inflicted an ideological experiment on the country without evidence to support it. The facts show that it has been an unmitigated disaster for the travelling public. Today, Members on both sides of the House should at least agree to call time on it and give the various parts of the country the powers they need to correct it.

I want to say something about coverage and quality of services. I know, as my hon. Friend Jeff Smith said in his excellent speech—I wish I could have been in that café with him while Eric Cantona played chess; it was a great image—that in parts of his constituency, particularly as it goes into the centre of town, buses are nose to tail. Particularly as they get towards Oxford Road in Manchester, people can see that the bus congestion is just ridiculous. I was with the vice-chancellor of Manchester University last week and she told me that the record number of buses that students had counted along Oxford Road was 34 continuously nose to tail. Of course, that has a terrible effect on traffic congestion in the city centre and it simply does not work.

We have saturation on the lucrative routes, as the bus companies see them, but, as we have heard today, they abandon more isolated areas that do not make a profit for them. The Higherfold estate in my constituency, which is in an isolated area, has constantly had problems with services being unilaterally withdrawn. Then there is an attempt to hold the passenger transport authority to account by saying, “Give us a subsidy or there is no service at all.” That leads to large subsidies for the bus companies that operate in such a way.

A year ago, a Mrs Healy wrote to me to say that the withdrawal of the 12 and 15 services from Leigh meant that her son could no longer get to work in Little Hulton and he had lost his job. No notice was given of the withdrawal of that service. This has a real impact on people’s lives and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East said, because many people in this Chamber do not use buses they might not understand how detrimental poor bus services can be to some people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned the Arrowfield estate. I recently went there to meet the Arrowfield and Hough End residents group, who told me about the withdrawal of the 84 service, which he mentioned and which, I think, served Withington hospital. The group said that that service had been withdrawn without any formal consultation with the community and the new service that was meant to replace it stopped at 5.30 in the evening, meaning that people could not get home from work. It is not acceptable for the public to be treated in this way.

Then, of course, there is the cost. In London between 1995 and 2016, fares rose in real terms by 36%, but in metropolitan areas, particularly Greater Manchester, fares rose by 60%. As we have heard today, the fare for a single journey can often cost more than £3. Because of the free-for-all, because operators are all running different ticketing systems and because of the chaos, we cannot have an integrated Oyster-style system, so, again, the public lose out.

During a consultation with young people in Bury a few months ago, I asked about the issues facing them, and the cost of transport came up again and again. I asked them whether they travelled on buses and whether they could afford it—this goes back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East—and the answer was that it was cheaper to get an Uber. If there are four of them, they can get an Uber together and it is cheaper than the bus.

Is it any wonder that the roads of Greater Manchester are becoming more and more congested as every year goes by? As the quality and the coverage of our bus service has gone down and the cost has gone up during the past 30 years, congestion has got worse and worse. That is affecting the air quality in Greater Manchester, and it means that Greater Manchester is in breach of the standards—the legal limits—for nitrogen dioxide. This simply cannot carry on, and I welcome the focus in the Bill on air quality.

I hope that the Government will go further and give Greater Manchester the powers to introduce a clean air zone. I ask the Minister: what reason can there be for the Government to exclude Greater Manchester from the list of places that they have allowed to introduce clean air zones, other than cost? Cost is not a good enough reason. It is not good enough that children are breathing in polluted air on the way to school. We look forward to his and the Government’s help in solving that problem.

If all of this were not bad enough in the experience of the travelling public, we are paying through the nose for it as well. A £100 million subsidy has been given to the bus companies annually, while at the same time they have been paying out large dividends to their shareholders. This system really does not work for the public in any meaningful way. As I say, it is time to call time on what is a failed ideological experiment.

I give credit to Sir Howard Bernstein, who has been mentioned, and Sir Richard Leese and Lord Peter Smith, as well as other leaders of Greater Manchester, who in my view were right to insist that the Bill should be part of the devolution deal that was done with Greater Manchester. I pay tribute to the former Chancellor, Mr Osborne, for agreeing to that request, and indeed to the current Minister and the Secretary of State for sticking by the deal and making sure that the Bill was put before the House.

However, I want to press the Minister and the Government on a number of concerns. An issue that several colleagues have raised today is the decision to reintroduce the clause that will restrict municipal ownership of bus companies. As my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood said, why restrict people, because we could at least have that as an option? From my point of view, as someone who might consider using the franchising powers, to have the fall-back option of a publicly owned company being able to come in and provide the service if there were no bidders on the terms sought would provide leverage, would it not? It would do so if they knew they could run a service because they had such an option up their sleeve. I say to the Minister that nobody wants anything to happen to the Bill that might disrupt its passage, but the Government should surely give people such flexibility so that they can make full use of the powers proposed in the Bill.

Another issue I want to mention is the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton. He talked about the regulations that have been published very recently—within the past couple of days—relating to the Bill. They state that the powers in the Bill can be given to a metropolitan mayoral area only if a “compelling case” is presented—not just a viable case, but a compelling one. In his winding-up speech, the Minister needs to spell out precisely what that means. Is he erecting a high hurdle to prevent metropolitan Mayors from using the powers in the Bill?