National Bus Strategy: England

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 15th March 2021.

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Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 5:15 pm, 15th March 2021

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I also thank those in the bus and local public transport industries for the work they have done, over the course of a very difficult year, to make sure that our country can keep on moving.

This strategy should have been used to revolutionise the bus industry, but I am afraid it lacks ambition and does not even touch the sides of the cuts and rocketing prices that passengers have witnessed over the past decade. It should have been used to ensure that funds were properly directed to deliver a radical transition to a zero-emission fleet—something that the Prime Minister promised more than a year ago—and to create new green jobs in the bus and coach sector, to give operators and manufacturers the boost that they so badly need.

Let us look beyond the headlines. The Secretary of State says that he wants buses to become more frequent, cheaper and greener. First, on buses being more frequent, the reality is that this Government have overseen the loss of 134 million miles of bus routes over the past decade, and some 3,000 local authority-supported bus services have been cut over the same period. In every year since 2010—year on year—passenger journeys outside of London have fallen. It is the Secretary of State’s Government who have made bus journeys less frequent in the first place. How will he ensure, specifically, that there are not just a few more services on routes that are already well served, but a reversal of the 3,000 bus cuts that we have seen over the past decade? How many of the 134 million bus miles lost will be returned by this investment?

On the second test, in respect of buses being cheaper, the Office for National Statistics has reported that in January bus inflation was up by 21% on the previous year. Although a price cap is welcome, the cost of transport is already forcing people off buses. What will the Secretary of State do to make sure not just that fares will not rise disproportionately in future, but that they will be brought down to a reasonable level that people can afford, so that they will choose to travel by bus?

The final test is for transport to be greener. It is more than a year since the Government promised 4,000 zero-emission buses, but they have not even started yet. That is nowhere near ambitious enough when we consider that there are 32,000 buses in England alone. Even with a one-to-one replacement, that could leave more than 28,000 buses that are not zero-emission. Incidentally, many of them will be serving areas that are being considered for clean air zones because of deadly levels of pollution.

It is a year since we were promised a transport revolution, and it has been a year of reannouncements. Although the pandemic can be blamed for some of the fall in passenger numbers we have seen, the Secretary of State knows full well that the past decade has really weakened the foundations of bus services in this country.

Let me turn to another announcement: council and operator partnerships. Councils throughout the country face a budget black hole of £15 billion, and this announcement, which throws in even more responsibility without funding in place, could weaken their position even further. Like many, I back the extension of London-style franchise powers throughout the country, and I sincerely hope that once the announcement is put into practice, that will be the reality for passengers throughout the country. I also support councils that want to do it themselves, which is why we back the establishment of municipal bus companies—incidentally, something outlawed by this Government in 2017. The Government have indicated that that may well be revisited, but my question to the Secretary of State is, why wait?

It is clear that we drastically need a bus service that is fit for the future, yet until we see those measures on the ground we cannot even begin to claim to be ambitious and to have a green bus strategy that meets the demands of local people and the immediate post-pandemic needs of the industry, or that addresses the huge challenge of stopping climate change and meeting our objectives. The real legacy of this Government is laid bare for all to see: the loss of key routes; rocketing ticket prices; and just 2% of the bus fleet zero-emission vehicles. It is on that record that the Government will be judged.