Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:03 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 5:03 pm, 1st March 2017

It is a pleasure to follow such excellent speeches from my hon. Friend Judith Cummins and my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham, whom I was proud to serve as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Labour Government. I hope that he will be elected as Mayor of Manchester in May.

When I was shadow Transport Secretary, I found that there was a great deal of media attention if I said something about the railways but that very few people were interested in buses, yet in cities such as Wakefield, twice as many people travel by bus as travel by train. I believe that everybody should have the right to get on a cheap, clean bus, no matter where they live, their age or if they have a disability. I am therefore pleased that buses are finally getting the attention they deserve and that Labour is supporting the Bill.

This is also a day for reflection on the Transport Act 1985, which has dominated the bus travelling lives of everyone in the House. It privatised and deregulated Britain’s bus services outside London, since when the number of bus journeys outside the capital has fallen by more than a third. I remember growing up in Coventry. The bus was my lifeline to school and in and out of work when I was a Saturday girl at British Home Stores—I do not think that I made any pension contributions, but I will be checking my wage slips when I get home. There was a time in the heyday of the early ’80s when children in Coventry travelled across the west midlands for 2p. That taught young people where the buses went, the routes, and the places they could go—we could go to the ice rink in Solihull; we did not have one in Coventry. That opened up all sorts of opportunities. If we do not get people travelling on buses when they are young, we will not persuade them to do so when they grow older.

Bus patronage in Yorkshire has halved since deregulation in 1985. The cut to services across Wakefield has left people on estates and in small towns and villages isolated. As colleagues have said about their own areas, it is cheaper in my city to get a taxi than to put yourself and three children on a bus—people in London forget that children outside London do not get free bus travel. The situation affects parental choices about where their children can go to school, because they have to think about whether they can afford the bus fares as well as school dinners and uniforms.

In London, which is the city whose Labour Mayor introduced the congestion charge, and which fought and won the battle against deregulation, bus passenger numbers have doubled. There we have it—numbers have halved in Yorkshire and doubled in London. When the Secretary of State talks about the number of bus journeys, we have to ask ourselves what it would have been without deregulation. The economy has grown, but in real terms bus patronage outside London has fallen.

There has been much waxing lyrical about investment from the private sector bus companies, but we forget—I have not heard this mentioned—that 41% of bus funding comes from the taxpayer. That has fallen from a figure of 46% when we left office in 2010. We, as democratically elected Members, and our local authority colleagues, as democratically elected local representatives, have a right to say how the money is spent and to see that buses are run as public services in the public interest, not as private services in the private interest.

At the last election, Labour promised more powers to regulate Britain’s bus services, and as the Bill goes some way to doing that, we support the Government’s U-turn. The fact that there are more bus journeys in London today than in the rest of country put together is an indictment of the past 30 years of bus policy under this and previous Conservative Governments, as well as the previous Labour Government. In the rest of the country, bus services are infrequent, run as monopolies and expensive. In London, as I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, open data are widely available, providing accurate and real-time information about buses. I use the Bus Checker app. It works in certain cities outside London, but not all of them. In most other parts of the country, bus travel information is held by bus companies and is not publicly available.

On funding concerns, there is no mention of money in the Bill. Buses are really important to the most vulnerable sections of our society—people on low incomes, the unemployed, the young, the disabled and the elderly. Blind people have a right to hear their stop called out; they should not have to rely on the kindness of other passengers. I have been on buses in London when, in a bit of a dream, perhaps thinking about some weighty matter before the House, I have found the audio-visual cues quite useful to rouse me from my reverie. Thanks to Labour’s free bus pass, one third of all bus journeys are taken by older and disabled people. While our planes, trains and roads are seen as economically important, buses are seen as a Cinderella service. Local transport authorities need more powers, but franchising, advanced quality partnerships and ticketing changes are only one part of the solution. The other essential tool that councils need—money—is missing from this Bill.

In 2010, the spending review slashed the bus service operators grant by 20%, and the 2015 local government settlement announced funding cuts to local government of 24% in real terms over this Parliament. It is a disgrace that a Government who have pledged to close the north-south gap have been found in a report published a couple of weeks ago by the Institute for Public Policy Research to be investing 10 times more funding per person for transport projects in London than in Yorkshire. Research by the Campaign for Better Transport shows that Government cuts have forced councils to slash bus subsidies by £78 million since 2010. What has that meant in the real world? Nearly half of councils have withdrawn bus services. The pressure on councils in all areas of the country to divert money away from bus services is huge.

Although I welcome the fact that the Bill finally gives authorities powers to create integrated transport and ticketing systems, the Government must extend these powers everywhere. They must be extended to Wakefield and Leeds in West Yorkshire, not just to areas with metro Mayors such as Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Bristol. Some of the best bus services in Britain are provided by municipal bus companies that are still owned at arm’s length by their councils, as we heard in the excellent speech made by my successor as shadow Transport Secretary, my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood.

Cities such as Nottingham and Reading boast some of best passenger satisfaction ratings in the country, but I am concerned that clause 21 of the original Bill would remove the rights of councils to set up municipal bus companies. Councils have a general power to promote economic and social development in their area, so I cannot understand why, if a council is giving planning permission for a new out-of-town shopping centre or a workplace such as a new-build factory, it should be unable to provide the bus services that will be necessary to get people to and from those places. That should fall under the general economic powers of councils.

I hope that the Government will not seek to reintroduce clause 21, which is ideologically driven. We need a heavy dose of pragmatism and a lot less so-called competition-driven ideology when it comes to buses. In London’s regulated system, the big five bus companies have managed to make a profit, and a regulated system operates across Europe. There is no reason why companies cannot operate and make money in the rest of the country, including my city of Wakefield. I hope the Secretary of State and the Minister will commit to improving bus services for all areas, not just cities with directly elected mayors.

My second major point is the environmental obligations that we need to put on bus operators to invest in ultra-low emission vehicles, such as those being rolled out in London by Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan. We have an air pollution crisis in this country, and we know that buses can help to tackle pollution by being greener and by cutting congestion.

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that air pollution causes 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year. Some 38 of the Government’s 43 air quality management areas, including Wakefield, have illegally high levels of nitrogen oxides—pollutants that cause respiratory diseases. It is very difficult to tackle this. Wakefield is at the intersection of the M1 and the M62 motorways, but there is also significant congestion in the city centre at rush hour, which is adding to our problems. These pollutants have been linked to heart disease and low birth weight in babies, so our constituents are affected before they are even born.

The Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, published its report “Sustainability in the Department for Transport” last September. I hope that the Minister has read it; perhaps I will test him on some of its findings when he makes his winding-up remarks. We found that progress on tackling air pollution was too slow. Critically, the Government are set to miss the Committee on Climate Change’s target for 9% of cars to be ultra-low emission by 2020. During our inquiry, we asked the Minister whether the 9% figure was reflected in his single departmental plan. We went to and fro over the issue. Eventually, in a letter from the civil servant responsible for this matter, we found out that the target was no longer 9%, but between 3% and 7%, with a mid-point of 5%. However, even that target is looking pretty unachievable because only 1.5% of England’s vehicles are currently ultra-low emission. We will not hit the 5% target, and we might be lucky to hit 3% over the next three years.

We need to be on the most cost-effective path to tackle transport emissions, and that means that we should be looking at a 9% target. We have no confidence that the UK will achieve a 60% market share for ultra-low emission vehicles by 2030. There is absolutely no strategy or policy in this area beyond 2020—[Interruption.] I can see the Ministers talking. I will be happy to take an intervention from them if they can put me right.

Last year, the High Court found that the Government’s plan to tackle air pollution was illegal. This Government have repeatedly delayed, postponed and pushed back the publication of their emissions reduction plan. This Bill is an opportunity to reverse that lack of ambition and incentivise the manufacture and uptake of zero-emission buses. Transport for London told my Committee that when the Government cut the 6p per kilometre payments for hybrid buses through the bus service operators grant, the costs of making its entire double-decker fleet zero-emission suddenly ran out of control. My Committee heard that the amount of funding available through the local sustainable transport fund and the clean bus technology fund is too small and not of the scale necessary to tackle this issue across our country.

The big bus operators in London are investing in green buses—as we have heard, London gets more bus grant—but its old buses are cascaded down to cities such as mine. Diesel pollution problems are transported out of London to cities that have exactly the same problems, but less money to sort them out. That is fundamentally unfair.

Labour Lords amended the Bill to require all new buses commissioned under partnership and franchising schemes to meet low-emission requirements. I urge the Government to keep that amendment. I will be grateful to the Minister if he addresses that point directly in his closing remarks.

Everybody should have access to a decent bus service. When I was shadow Environment Secretary, I got an email about a young man in Chichester. His parents told me that he had a place to study at Chichester college, but the council had just cut the bus service. They said, “We don’t have a car. What is he supposed to do?” I was really heartbroken. I thought to myself that that was the end for this young man. He was 16 years old and the thing that he wanted to do—to go to college so that he could get on in life—was being denied to him.

Physical mobility through the use of buses is key to social mobility in our lives. If a person cannot move out of their village, they will always stay where they are. We want people to get out of their villages so that they can access towns and cities, and the educational, leisure and shopping opportunities that exist in our neighbourhoods. That is really important for local shops, particularly in this internet age. The Government’s deregulation of buses has been disastrous for cities such as Wakefield. The Bill gives us an opportunity to tackle air pollution and congestion, but without a cross-departmental strategy involving the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government, its impact will be limited.

The Department for Transport’s own figures predict that, by 2040, numbers of bus journeys will have fallen faster than numbers of journeys using any other form of transport. We have to stop that decline. We have to tackle air pollution and carbon emissions. The Bus Services Bill is the first attempt to improve bus services in our country and to give people the opportunities that they deserve. I do hope that Ministers will listen to my Committee’s concerns about air pollution and ensure that we do not miss that opportunity.