Traffic commissioner functions

Bus Services Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 14th March 2017.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:30 pm, 14th March 2017

I beg to move amendment 30, in clause 14, page 69, line 22, at end insert—

“(5) After section 6I insert—

‘6J Community bus routes

(1) Traffic Commissioners must keep a list of bus routes in their area which are of community value.

(2) For the purpose of this section, a bus route of community value is one that has been designated by the traffic commissioner as furthering the social well-being or social interests of the local community.

(3) Bus routes may only be designated by a traffic commissioner as being of community value in response to a community nomination.

(4) A community nomination must be made by a community group which is based in, or has a strong connection with, an area through which the bus route passes, and on which community the bus route has a direct social impact.

(5) A community group may be, for example—

(a) a local or parish council;

(b) a voluntary or community body with a local connection;

(c) a bus user group;

(d) a group formed for the specific purpose of maintaining the bus route;

(e) a church or other religious group, or

(f) a parent teacher group associated with a particular school or schools.

(6) The traffic commissioner must consider the community nomination, and if—

(a) the nomination is successful, the commissioner must notify the relevant parties of this decision in writing; or

(b) the nomination is unsuccessful, the commissioner must notify the relevant parties of this decision in writing and give reasons why the decision was made.

(7) An operator of a bus route which is designated as being of community value must give a minimum of six months’ notice of an intention to terminate the service, in order for the community to—

(a) work with relevant authorities to find an alternative operator;

(b) set up a community transport group in order to run the service; or

(c) partner with an existing not-for-profit operator to run the route.

(8) The community may apply to the Secretary of State for financial assistance, training or advice during the notice period in order to achieve any of the aims set out in subsection (7).’”

This amendment would give Traffic Commissioners the power to designate bus routes assets of community value.

I apologise, Mr Owen, but this bus is moving rather more quickly than I had anticipated. We are doing very well.

The notion of defining a bus route or a bus service as a community asset may come as something of a surprise to people, as it did when it was first raised with me. However, the more I have thought about it, the more significant it seems it could be. Although much of the discussion today, with our comments about Nottingham, and on Second Reading has been about urban areas, the problems facing buses in rural areas are dear to many people’s hearts. Many of us would agree that the local bus service is a key aspect of everyday life in many parts of the country.

Without rehearsing the figures, which I suspect are familiar to all of us, bus services are disappearing from many parts of the country for a whole range of reasons. As was explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield, there is quite often a feeling of powerlessness when there is a sudden change to what may be a lifeline—sometimes that is for relatively few people, but it is crucial to them none the less. Whether from urban or rural areas, I suspect all of us, as Members of Parliament, have found ourselves in the difficult situation of responding to local people who come to us and say, “The bus service is going or changing; what can you do to help?” That has been a part of the discussions we have had throughout the day.

I suspect that a discussion about advanced quality partnerships, franchising, net costs, gross costs, contracts and all the rest of it will not greatly reassure many people. They want to know what can be done about their bus service; that is what matters to them. What we suggest is that those means of communication—those routes—are seen as a community asset and put on the same legislative footing as community assets such as pubs, community buildings and land. That is not to say that something can be preserved forever—that is impossible—but the measure would slow down the process, just as we do with a potential pub closure, to give the community the chance to build the capacity and support to put something else in place. I am not sure that the big society is still with us—

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport)

In which case, this is the big society revisited. I am sure the Minister will be commended for defending it.

The community asset legislation sits comfortably within the Conservative Government’s Localism Act 2011. It rightly recognises that community assets should be protected and given elevated status so that communities can come together and help to save or run things that they judge they cannot do without. The proposition is to establish a new class of assets of community value—bus route assets of community value—based on the route of the bus, as designated and held by the relevant traffic commissioners. It is notable that currently, bus stops can be an asset of community value. Indeed, some have been designated as such, which shows the importance that local communities place on such services.

The amendment would allow communities to come together to apply to the relevant traffic commissioner to designate the service they hold dear as a bus route of community value. The route would then be subject to a six-month moratorium should there be a threat of its being cut, which would allow precious time for the community, as defined by the Localism Act, to work with the relevant authorities to find an alternative operator, set up a community transport group to run the service, or partner with an existing not-for-profit operator. The powers mirror those in the Localism Act, and would change rural passengers’ influence over how bus services are delivered to them.

The nomination would be made by a community based in, or with a strong connection to, an area through which the bus route passes and on which the route has a direct social impact. Community groups could include a local or parish council, a voluntary or community body with a local connection, a bus user group, a group formed for the specific purpose of maintaining the bus route, a church or other religious group, or a parent-teacher group associated with a particular school or schools.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Having been involved with pubs in this way, I found the proposal, on the face of it, quite attractive. However, given that the Bill provides more data and therefore a greater ability to see whether it would be worthwhile to take a route on, and the fact that anyone can apply to run a bus service, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, on balance, the amendment would put operators off starting a route in the first place and could, therefore, be counterproductive?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport)

There is a risk of that, of course. Equally, if we ask ourselves, “What are we going to do to help protect local communities?”, we have to make a judgment on the balance of the risk. In most areas, our biggest problem is not lots of new services being suppressed by the threat of their being declared an asset of community value. Generally, the threat is the other way around, with services gradually being eroded.

I certainly do not suggest that the proposal is a panacea or an answer. My concern is that, all too often, by the time people have got together and responded to the possibility of a change, it is too late, and once the service has gone people basically give up—we are often dealing with relatively small numbers—and do what people have always had to do, which is turn to an alternative, whether that be buying a motorbike or forking out for a car, even though that might be difficult. That is what, in the spirit of this discussion, we are trying to prevent. The scale is obviously different from that of the problems in our major conurbations, which have rightly occupied much of our discussion today, but the amendment would be a positive contribution that would help people in other parts of the country.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Labour, Nottingham South

I listened to the concern voiced by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, but surely, where a new route had been set up, the traffic commissioner would not be minded to allow it to be designated as an asset of community value, because it would not be sufficiently long standing for that to be appropriate. Much as I understand his concerns, I do not think that they are well placed in this context.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:45 pm, 14th March 2017

Yet again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about trying to find ways of tackling the relentless erosion of services that have been a key part of the fabric of many communities.

Happily, I have been provided with a particularly good example from the constituency of Witney, which I am sure a number of us have had cause to visit in the last year—well, we should have, anyway. I did. I am not sure why, in retrospect—[Laughter.] It was because I was a good friend of the unsuccessful Labour candidate. Anyway, in the face of vital service withdrawals, the local Labour and Co-operative councillors in Witney—I think it was the Labour candidate, in fact—have helped to save local bus services for the community.

The West Oxfordshire Community Transport benefit society was formed, and its people’s bus service has begun to carry passengers. It has managed to maintain timetables, fares and the routes that people in the area rely on, but one thing is different about that new service—it belongs to the community itself and will be run not for profit. As it is a community benefit society, anyone is able to join, which has an additional effect in terms of community development and bringing people together. That is a good example of the types of organisations and communities that would benefit from the amendment.

The amendment would go one step further than the existing Localism Act powers and place a duty on the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance, training and advice to communities working to save routes through the new moratorium period. We think it is an innovative proposal that could be built on by a Government that wished to join the hundreds of communities around the country that will meet today or this week to discuss ways in which they can maintain their area’s bus service.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Amendment 30 would reinforce the local importance of certain bus services by enabling them to be designated as routes of community value. I am fully aware of the issues that many people experience with bus services that are under threat or have been reduced, and there is no doubt that many local authorities face funding issues and therefore difficult decisions about the services that they wish to subsidise. However, in several areas of the country we are seeing innovative solutions, from the community transport sector stepping in to the provision of more integrated services and the Total Transport pilot schemes that my Department is supporting. It is encouraging to hear the story from Witney. Interestingly, that is not an area that I have been to for quite a long time. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is not listening. [Laughter.] Well, it was never in doubt, was it?

The amendment would resolve issues relating to the continued provision of services on routes that are deemed to be of community value. I agree that where services are to be cut or their frequency is to be significantly reduced, commercial operators—or, in the case of subsidised services, local authorities—must do all they can to keep people informed, consult them and seek to pass on a service in some form. That is part of the thinking behind clause 19, which provides for greater information to be provided to local authorities when a service is reduced or cancelled.

However, I do not think that it is reasonable or sensible to force operators to continue to operate a service, potentially at significant financial detriment, for six months rather than the 56 days currently required. Doing so could act as a disincentive for operators to trial new services, step in to see whether they can make a service viable or operate services commercially where local authority funding is precarious and can be kept going for only a short time. The unintended consequences could easily outweigh the benefits that the Opposition wish to see. I hope that, in the light of those considerations, the hon. Member for Cambridge feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport)

I will withdraw the amendment, but I will make one observation. I am not entirely sure why this is different from declaring the last pub in a village an asset of community value. As far as I can see, exactly the same considerations apply. If it is good enough for the pub, why is it not good enough for the bus service?

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.— (Mark Spencer.)

Adjourned till Thursday 16 March at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

BSB01 Bus user group for Potters Bar and the city of St Albans

BSB02 Roger Sexton

BSB03 Equality and Human Rights Commission

BSB04 Dr John Disney

BSB05 Gordon Forster

BSB06 Age UK

BSB07 FirstGroup

BSB08 Dr Jon Lamonte, Chief Executive, Transport for Greater Manchester

BSB09 Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership

BSB10 Arriva

BSB11 Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport

BSB12 Martin Carr

BSB13 Tom Kearney

BSB14 Catherine Casserley and Chris Fry, legal advisers to Mr Paulley (in relation to the amendment for priority wheelchair spaces (NC7))

BSB15 National Express West Midlands

BSB16 Association of Colleges

BSB17 Jeffrey Richard Harvey

BSB18 Campaign for Better Transport