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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:10 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 1:10 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, I am slightly intimidated to be standing here between my two noble friends, given their distinguished record in local government. After 18 years as a local councillor in Cardiff, I rose to the dizzying heights of the leader of the opposition group of only nine councillors. My first job in local government was on the transport committee of Cardiff Council—and I am still talking about buses today.

In 2017-18, local authorities in England spent £3.9 billion on highways and transport. That is a surprisingly low figure compared with, for example, the £32 billion spent on education or even the £11 billion spent on police. The key point is that that figure has fallen by 37.1% in real terms since 2011, compared with a fall of only 3.2% in respect of children’s social care, for example. The reason for that disparity is that local authorities have more flexibility in spending on highways and buses than on providing children with social care, given their legal obligation to do so. But the withdrawal of funding for buses has a knock-on effect on local authorities’ core legal education and social care obligations, such as the provision of school buses.

The withdrawal of funding also has a knock-on effect on local economies and town centres. As bus services have declined, towns have become more congested; air quality has declined, impacting on health; and many people—especially in rural areas—have become isolated, which has its own social and health impacts. It also affects social mobility, as the investigation carried out by the Government’s Social Mobility Commission discovered. It is a false economy to cut bus services, but individual councils often feel forced into such economies. However, it is important to note that some local authorities still provide good transport services.

My purpose today is to point to the way to doing this better, and to ask Government to reconsider their strategic decision to abandon our rural areas, in particular, to the myth of salvation by Uber. We simply cannot go on as we are if we hope to save our bus services, because the statistics show that the situation has become critical. Since 2011, there has been a net reduction of £172 million in local authorities’ spending on supported buses services alone—a 46% decrease. Since then, 3,088 bus services have been reduced, altered or withdrawn altogether. This year alone, funding has decreased by 9%, and 64% of local authorities either reduced spending or spent nothing at all on supported bus services. Local authorities as varied as Luton, Cumbria, Middlesbrough, Bristol, Stoke-on-Trent and Oxfordshire—and many more—spent nothing. Many services continue to run on a commercial basis, but it is the supported bus services—those that run in the evening, on weekends and to rural and suburban areas where there is no other public transport—that provide the lifeline.

The cuts have come from a number of sources, including the reduction in the Government’s bus service operators’ grant and the general reduction in funding to local authorities, which has squeezed them generally. We have heard from many noble Lords this morning about that. The Government’s continued underfunding of the true costs of running the free travel scheme for pensioners is also a cut, in effect, as it impacts on local bus services. In rural areas, pensioners are usually the main bus users, which therefore makes rural services very difficult to run profitably on a commercial basis. There are honourable exceptions to these cuts, and some local authorities have recognised the social and economic importance of buses. Others have devised imaginative schemes, using smaller vehicles to match the more limited demand in sparsely populated areas. Going Forward Buses, for example, operates minibuses in rural Oxfordshire and west Berkshire on a number of routes. They accept free bus passes, stop at normal stops and, if safe, stop on demand. It is a community interest company and gets no subsidy, although it does welcome donations from passengers.

I have a number of suggestions for the future. Sections 19 and 20 of the Transport Act 1985 set out the arrangements and conditions applying to the operation of small buses. At that time, it was thought necessary to provide commercial bus operators with some protection from competition from small operators, which had less onerous regulations to follow. Many commercial operators have now withdrawn from rural areas, and a weekly shopping bus is no substitute for a regular service giving access to work, training or other activities. A free bus pass is of no value where there are no buses. It is time that this part of the 1985 Act was revisited, in order to make it easier to combine volunteer drivers with paid drivers to provide proper bus services. Will the Minister consider how this might be progressed?

Campaign for Better Transport recommends a number of measures. We need a long-term national investment strategy for buses—we have one for trains, but far more people use buses—and a long-term view. Local authorities need to take a long hard look at the new bus services Act which, although far from perfect, does allow them to create proper partnerships with bus companies. Local authorities need to bring together all their available transport funding, rather than separating it out into schools, social services and so on. They need to partner with the NHS; there is the potential for integrated contracts. The Government must allow more flexible funding models, incorporating community transport initiatives and social enterprises, and provide some kick-start funding.

The Department for Transport presides over chaos and resists taking responsibility for so much of our transport services. Many of the problems are genuinely complex, long term and difficult to solve. But the bus problem could be solved in one calendar year if the Government were prepared to change their political philosophy on this one.