Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:01 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 6:01 pm, 1st March 2017

I can confirm that. Our approach will be one of glass half full rather than glass half empty. We are not trying to get in the way of authorities or others that wish to improve their bus services. The whole point of the Bill is to provide a suite of enabling powers so that authorities can do what is right for their area to put more passengers on buses and provide better networks. We will certainly view all conversations positively.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, benefits for passengers will need to be at the heart of any authority’s application for franchising powers. Governance, geography and evidence will be critical if authorities are to apply successfully for franchising status. I do not agree with colleagues, including the hon. Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who believe that bus franchising powers should be available to all authorities throughout England automatically.

My right hon. Friend Mrs Villiers recognised the very real risks to investment by bus operators that will be created if franchising powers are made automatically available to all local authorities, and the chilling effect that that might have on operators and bus manufacturers such as Wrightbus. I am aware of the quality of that business’s products. My right hon. Friend made her point clearly, drawing on her experience. I agree with the concerns highlighted, which is one reason why we will seek to reverse the changes made in the other place.

I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West recognised, the Bill requires franchising authorities to consider how, in conducting their procurement process for franchising contracts, they will facilitate the involvement of small and medium-sized operators. We—and, I hope, every directly elected Mayor—want to ensure that such operators thrive if franchising is implemented. We have made that clear in the Bill.

I have been interested to hear the range of views about municipal bus companies. I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham South and others who highlighted that those that have survived deliver great services to their passengers. I believe that there are seven municipal bus companies in England, and I saw one for myself yesterday on a visit to Reading. However, on the whole, private sector bus operators have delivered our local bus services for the past 30 years. We want to ensure that we strike the right balance, with commercial operators continuing to innovate and deliver good services for passengers.

The Bill provides local authorities with substantially more opportunities to influence the provision of local bus services in their area, whether through partnerships or franchising, and we are therefore still of the view that commissioning and the provision of services should be kept separate.

Many colleagues asked about rural services. Through franchising and partnership, the Bill will work for every area of the country—urban and rural. I assure my hon. Friend Craig Tracey, who is a great champion of rural bus services, that the Bill’s partnership powers allow local authorities to work with operators to improve the co-ordination of services, for example to link bus and rail services more closely. A good example of that is under way in Cornwall, which is already working in partnership with operators to ensure that rural areas have bus links to key shopping or employment centres at the right times of day. That is a positive development, which already uses the powers in the Bill. The local operator has invested in its fleet and increased its profitability and patronage in the area.

Several authorities are also planning bus services alongside community transport services and other types of transport, such as home-to-school or patient transport, so that rural connectivity is maximised. That is the sort of innovation that we need across the country and that we are encouraging through our Total Transport pilot scheme, to which the hon. Member for Nottingham South referred. The Government are a strong supporter of community transport.

My hon. Friend David Warburton was right to highlight clause 19. When routes are withdrawn, such as the 116 that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire mentioned, we want local authorities to have the information they need to decide whether and how to provide replacement services. That is exactly what clause 19 aims to achieve.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside that bus routes should be designated as assets of community value. As the Government explained in our response to the Select Committee report, that would force operators to continue to operate a service for six months, potentially at huge cost, which could act as a disincentive for operators improving or maintaining services, especially in rural areas.

I should like to challenge the myth, which has been perpetrated in the debate by some colleagues, that bus services were flourishing before deregulation in the 1980s and that the decrease in bus passengers started at deregulation. I have gone back and looked at the data. In the 30 years between 1955 and 1985—30 years prior to deregulation—the number of passenger journeys on local bus services in Great Britain fell on average by 2% a year. Since deregulation, the fall has gradually reduced, at an average of just 0.2% a year. The number of passenger journeys fell from 15.5 billion in 1955 to 5.5 billion in 1985. One thing has been clear in the debate: all hon. Members want that trend reversed and for passenger numbers to increase.

Many colleagues mentioned buses and air quality. I have absolutely no doubt that buses can be a critical ingredient to improving an area’s air quality. As parts of a partnership or franchising area, authorities will be able to specify the emission standards of vehicles. In fact, the Government introduced amendments in the other place to make that clearer. We have supported and will continue to support bus companies with grants to encourage the take-up of low emission vehicles. Low emission buses are critical to putting in place good integrated transport systems with low emissions.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside mentioned the Traffic Management Act 2004. I agree that congestion is a problem that has an adverse impact on local bus services. However, the Government and I remain to be convinced about the case for giving all authorities the powers to install a raft of new cameras on yellow box junctions or elsewhere. In the past few days, I received a letter from a councillor who said that doing that would be a great idea because it would help with council revenue collection, which was exactly what we did not want to hear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bath asked about tourist buses. As far as I am aware, any arrangements that are already in place can continue unchanged, but I will check that and write to him to confirm it.

We have covered many issues, but I am sure that my speech from the Dispatch Box and hon. Members’ comments have touched on only some of the issues that we will cover in Committee, which I look forward to. The Bill enables improvements where they are needed. It has also been clear from the speeches made by colleagues on both sides of the House that they have been thinking about how the new powers in the Bill will be used to improve services in their areas, which is great and exactly what we want.

The bus industry has made huge strides in making the experience of bus travel more attractive. Many buses have free wi-fi, as well as CCTV and USB charging points. The vast majority of buses are now accessible.

Last year, more than 4.65 billion bus passenger journeys were taken in this country, which was three times as many journeys as on the entire rail network. Buses are as relevant now as they have ever been. I see them playing a very important part in all our transport futures. All good public transport systems will have buses at their heart. There is no shortage of energy, effort and investment in the sector to support a growing bus industry. The purpose of the Bill is to continue that great work to the benefit of bus passengers, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.