It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson; I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that we dressed identically today by accident—it was not so that we could fill in as each other’s body doubles. I intend to speak briefly to lay out my concerns, and to touch on an amendment that my colleagues and I hope to table at a later stage, which I hope the Minister will take into account in his response.
In Sheffield, as in many metropolitan areas, deregulation was supposed to herald competition, but instead, as we have heard, that competition resulted in false monopolies and provoked a disaster in bus services throughout the country. We have heard lots of Members reminisce about the difference in performance before deregulation; I am afraid I cannot join in as deregulation happened two years before I was born. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to benefit from the improvements that the Bill heralds.
The past 30 years have seen a decline in passenger numbers, a decline in routes that has affected some of the most hard-to-reach areas, and a rise in prices. In metropolitan areas, including Sheffield, prices have risen by 75% since 2005, which is unaffordable and unacceptable. Bus changes introduced in South Yorkshire last year have seriously blighted the lives of some of my most vulnerable constituents, cutting off an entire estate in Arbourthorne, an area with particularly low car-ownership levels; reducing services to areas with exceptionally high numbers of older people; scrapping entirely the route to the Northern general hospital; and cutting off the Chancet Wood and Abbey Brook areas from nearby Woodseats, where the nearest shops, dentists, doctors and other services are.
When the changes were made, the public consultation was woeful. It was conducted practically in secret over a few weeks in the summer, and the considerable evidence presented to demonstrate demand and needs has been all but dismissed by First and Stagecoach. Sheffield City Council has unfairly taken the blame: the changes cannot be separated from the unprecedented cuts to local authority funding, because the amount of money available for supported services has been shrinking.
Franchising is clearly desirable to ensure that all areas are adequately covered. That is preferable to the current situation, in which certain routes—that is, those from densely populated residential districts to central hubs and back—are well served at peak times, while rural and sparsely populated areas are left out. In short, my constituents have been ill served by deregulation. For Sheffield, where well over a third of the population does not own a car, that really matters.
The demand should be there, but it is being stifled by a strategy that could be said to be managed decline, with the creaming off of the profitable routes and abandonment of the rest. We have heard time and again that in London, which avoided deregulation, patronage has doubled, mileage has increased, and fares have risen at a lower rate than in the city regions. The Lords amendments to overturn the nonsensical, ideological decision to bar metropolitan authorities from forming new municipal bus companies were very welcome. I repeat the calls made by many Members today for the Government to keep those changes.
Sheffield’s fractured bus service needs a workable, region-wide and comprehensive approach, not more dogma, which was wrong in the ’80s and is wrong now. I very much welcome the proposals in the Bill, but would like to see them rolled out to everywhere in the UK, not just those places that will benefit from metropolitan mayors.
I wholeheartedly support the provisions to increase transparency by making use of open data. The Bill includes powers to make regulations on the release and format of open data on routes, timetables, punctuality and fares. The other place scrutinised this in detail, and its Members were concerned about the burden it could impose on transport companies. However, wherever open data has been introduced, it has been demonstrated to reduce the burden on authorities and, crucially, to empower passengers and passenger groups to hold bus companies to account—something that has been sorely lacking in recent times.
Open data as infrastructure was conspicuous by its absence in the Government’s digital strategy today. The format of that open data is crucial. I urge the Minister to look at Ofcom’s work on broadband speeds to find a perfect example of how complex data can be distilled and presented in a way that enables passengers to hold operators to account. That can only work if the format is easily understandable and presentable. I would welcome a clear indication from the Minister on that.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport released its digital strategy today. Regrettably, it is a document that is short on ambition for our digital infrastructure, leaving 400,000 small and medium-sized businesses without superfast broadband, and vast swathes of our rural communities ill connected. However, the ambition of ensuring access to digital infrastructure for all can be served in unusual ways, including through the provisions of the Bill, so I intend to table an amendment that I hope will improve passenger experiences and the public’s access to free wi-fi. The benefits of public internet access are abundantly clear. Today, we access mobile data on a scale not seen before. Since 4G came into public use, mobile data traffic has increased by 600% to well over 70 million gigabytes. We are using data on the go to access our emails, to stream TV and radio, and to conduct video conferences. By the end of the month, many have to top up their data and spend yet more money on what should be considered a fourth utility.
Today’s digital strategy states:
“The UK’s digital infrastructure must be able to support this rapid increase in traffic, providing coverage with sufficient capacity to ensure data can flow at the volume, speed and reliability required to meet the demands of modern life.”
But those words are simply meaningless if we do not deliver proper access everywhere.
I urge the Minister to include in franchising agreements as they come up for renewal a commitment by the operators to deliver free wi-fi on buses. It is already in place on trains, and there is no reason that commuters within cities should not share the same benefits as those between cities. I hope the Minister will seriously consider that as the Bill, which will deliver vastly improved services to passengers across the country, passes through the House.