It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. It is now 25 years, a quarter of a century, since buses outside London were deregulated following the Transport Act 1985. We have a great deal of experience of what the implementation of the Act meant. By and large, it has been a very poor experience. It is sensible to call it a disaster for the bus-travelling public. In Greater Manchester, in the past 20 years, approximately 30% of the number of people who travelled by bus no longer do so. Bus deregulation has meant higher fares in real terms, a reduction in the networks and less reliability. It is not surprising, therefore, that the number of passengers has reduced.
I will not say that everything about bus deregulation has been awful—most of it has been. If I had to put a figure on it, it would be approximately 80%. A great deal of it has been bad. Bus deregulation has been successful on radial routes in major urban conurbations, where the service in peak times is often better than it was. The old transport authorities and county councils were guilty of having inflexible bus routes and of sending buses to where people lived 30, 40 or 50 years previously, before areas were demolished and rebuilt elsewhere. The commercial flexibility of the deregulated system has had some benefits, but overall the impact has been negative.
How does one disaggregate that from the natural trends in bus ridership in the past 25 years or so? Well, that is fairly easy because we have a precise comparison. When bus services were deregulated in the rest of England and Wales, they were not deregulated in London. Between 1986 and when the office of the Mayor of London was introduced in 1998, the regulated franchise system in London retained its passengers with very little subsidy. From the time of the election of Ken Livingstone in 1998, the number of bus passengers in London increased and the network became more extensive because a considerable increase in subsidy was put into the system. The period after 1998 does not offer an exact comparison, but the period between 1986 and 1998 offers a very good comparison. Bus passengers were retained in this city, but they were not retained elsewhere. The simple conclusion is that that is because of bus deregulation.
Behind all the statistics that I will use in my speech, there are real people. If people want to get a sense of the damage that has been done to individual lives by the loss of bus services—it affects family life and the ability to get into employment—I suggest that they read the recent Transport Committee report, “Bus Services after the Spending Review”. That report has example after example of people’s lives being blighted, their ability to obtain employment diminished and their ability to see their families reduced because bus services have disappeared.
I thank the officials at the Passenger Transport Executive Group, Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester city council, and his officials at Transport for Greater Manchester. They provided a lot of the statistics in this speech about transport in Manchester and transport nationally. Two thirds of all public journeys take place by bus, even after the reduction in numbers following deregulation. We are therefore talking about something that is important to many people’s lives, often the poorest people in our communities, and something that is vital to the economy.
My main point in this speech is that there will be cuts to an already reduced system. I do not want a sterile debate in which the Government say that it is all the fault of the previous Government that they are making cuts, and we on this side of the Chamber say that the cuts are too fast and too deep. Both those points have their place. What is interesting is that, because we are dealing with cuts to a deregulated system, it is possible to diminish the impact of those cuts by looking carefully at what are likely to be the recommendations of the Competition Commission, and by trying to use more effectively and directly the facilities in the Local Transport Act 2008. That is what I want to concentrate on.
To get some sense of the size of the impact of the cuts that are likely to happen, I will go through what the bus system is faced with. First, there is the 28% reduction in local authority grants, which will affect buses. Then there are changes in the formula for concessionary travel. Estimates on the impact that that will have on the bus system vary between £50 million and £100 million. The best estimate is approximately £77 million. From
Those are the three big areas where there will be cuts, but there is also the abolition of the rural bus grant and the 50% reduction for small and medium-sized public transport schemes from the integrated transport block. There will, therefore, be major changes and reductions in bus services in the coming years. PTEG has tried to estimate what will happen and its conclusions are pretty stark and frightening. It estimates that by 2014 fares will have gone up by 24%—nearly a quarter—in real terms, there will be a decline in service levels of 19%, which is nearly a fifth, and patronage will be down by about a fifth. That is in metropolitan areas, which is what is covered by PTEG.
According to the Transport Committee report, 70% of local authorities in non-urban areas have already cut their grants for buses and transport. My hon. Friend Mr Wright is present and I look forward to listening to his contribution later, but in Hartlepool 100% of the bus services subsidy has been removed, as is the case in Cambridgeshire, although I understand that that is currently subject to legal challenge. In Somerset, North Yorkshire, Shropshire and Northamptonshire, there have also been significant cuts, while in Luton and Peterborough there have been no cuts. The situation around the country is varied but, overall, it looks pretty bleak, given the PTEG projections for urban areas and the known cuts identified in non-urban areas by the Transport Committee.
Transport is a function devolved to local transport authorities but, I ask the Minister as the Transport Committee did, surely central Government have a responsibility, not to make local decisions but to know what is happening in every area, so that when the Government make decisions about their grants and where they spend their money, they can do so as accurately and effectively as possible, and that requires knowledge.
The Office of Fair Trading decided that it would refer the bus industry to the Competition Commission. There was already a great deal of evidence from Greater Manchester and other places that monopoly behaviour was effectively taking place. It has taken the competition authorities a long time to get around to looking into it. More than 10 years ago I wrote to the competition authorities and asked them to investigate—I was not the only person who did that—and they said, “Please produce written documentation of unlawful agreements between different bus operators.” Of course I could not do that—those documents would not be available to a Member of Parliament or anyone else, if indeed they existed—but by looking statistically at what is happening, we can see all the signs of real monopoly behaviour, and that is what the Competition Commission has found.
I will go through some statistics for Greater Manchester. In Oldham, for instance, 85% of the services are provided by First. In my own constituency the figure is about 67%, in Salford 77% and in the whole of north Manchester 70%. In south Manchester, we can see a mirror image of those figures, with Stagecoach monopolising: in Stockport it provides 82% of services, and in the whole of south Manchester about 74%.
My constituents suffer a real disadvantage in fare levels. I was told when I put my case to First that not many people buy the one-off fare, but that people buy weekly tickets. Even the weekly tickets bought from First by people in north Manchester are 47% higher—£17, compared with £11.50—than the price people pay in parts of south Manchester, where the average income is about £10,000 higher than for my constituents. So if they need to use buses, they are paying twice the percentage of their income on fares. Frankly, there is little on-road competition, which is what was originally intended to be the driver of better, more effective and more responsive services under bus deregulation.
Another indication of monopoly or anti-competitive behaviour is what in the system is called gaming the market, where bus companies use the fact that two different transport systems are in operation—the deregulated system, under which anyone can operate a bus service having given a small length of notice, and the subsidised, tendered services. In designed deregistration, the bus company is really saying, “We can make more money from this service, because it is an important service for the public, if we deregister it and then get the transport authority to tender it out.” Then, if it loses the tender, and a tendered service is running, the company reregisters the services, or parts of them, to undermine the subsidised service. An awful lot of such anti-competitive behaviour goes on.
As I said, the competition authorities were slow to get off the mark and to look at the area, but they have got off the mark, and credit to them for that. They have found that profits are much higher in the deregulated area than in London. In the past 24 hours Go-Ahead, for its out-of-London services, has just announced record profit levels of up to 10.4%.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that anyone may enter the bus market, but does he agree that one of the faults of deregulation was that it did not create a perfect market? There are significant barriers to entry, even if one does not go through the subsidised route but sets up an independent service.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly sound point, which I will come to in my conclusions. The large operators own the garages and can afford to subsidise competition if there are new entrants to the market—it is a long way from being perfect competition.
I was talking about the profits of Go-Ahead but the profits of Stagecoach are truly staggering, especially when the economy is flatlining and we have been in recession. They are up to £153 million from £126 million, which is an increase from 14.4% to 17.1%. In the friendly debates I have with Brian Souter of Stagecoach, he once called Gwyneth Dunwoody and me “dinosaurs” because we believe in going back to a sane system of regulated buses—he even set up little models of dinosaurs. I do not know how many people in the Chamber remember the film made of the James Clavell book, “King Rat”. When the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore was liberated by allied forces, there was one very fat prisoner among all the other prisoners, whose ribs were showing—they were starving to death. At a time of austerity and the economy not doing well, Brian Souter and Stagecoach are the King Rats of the British economy, doing enormously well out of public subsidy when everyone else is struggling to get to work and make a living. They are, in effect, subsidy junkies.
The figures in the Transport Committee’s report show that the bus industry outside London receives from the fare pot about £1.8 billion in a total income of £3.4 billion, so 47% of the bus industry’s income comes from taxpayers. It is as simple as that. Whenever a bus leaves a depot, an average of 50% of its costs are paid by taxpayers. Given what has happened with deregulation, is that sensible use of taxpayers’ money? Are we receiving the best possible value?
The hon. Gentleman may not know that in my constituency there is only one bus company for the whole island, and there is no competition. What prevents large companies from competing in the parts of Manchester that he mentioned, where that seems not to happen?
I am the wrong person to ask, but my view is that companies do not compete because then they can exploit the market using informal agreements or in nods and winks, by putting up fares in their own areas without the cost of competing. The statistical evidence in their profits and fare levels is that they are exploiting the market compared with what happens in the London market. That is voluntary. Companies are happier operating in their own areas. They say that they do not like the extra dead mileage if buses must be driven into areas where other companies operate from their depots, but that is a weak argument. They simply do not want to compete because it is more profitable for them not to.
The making of high profits was the first major finding in the Competition Commission’s interim report. The second was that many operators face little or no competition. It is welcome that the commission finally got around to writing the report, but it is flawed in many ways, as such reports tend to be because they look at statistics over the past five years, but the economic world is now different and more difficult. They estimate that anti-competitive behaviour costs £70 million, but they do not include the cost when people abandon buses; if that were included the real cost to the public would be much higher. In addition, they do not look at how the current bus system inhibits the use of simple integrated ticketing, which would drive up the number of passengers using buses.
I have a few requests for the Minister. First, when the Competition Commission’s report is published and he is considering what to do about buses, will bear in mind that there is a lot of information out there, but it has to be culled at great expense from surveys and other sources, because the bus companies keep much of their information private, despite receiving 50% subsidy? Good-quality information is vital for local transport authorities when planning their services.
My second request is for through-ticketing. We know what brings people back on to buses: a simple, low-fare structure with through-ticketing. It is estimated that if fares are cut by 20%, passenger numbers increase by 13%, with a further increase if the ticket structure is simplified with through-ticketing. What can the Minister do to help that?
My main question, which goes back to the beginning of my speech, is how can the Minister support and help to build on the powers and structures in the 2008 Act? I know that he understands the legislation thoroughly, because he and I served on the scrutiny Committee. There are many barriers facing South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, and Tyne and Wear passenger transport authorities. They are considering moving back to a regulated system of quality contracts, because the buses, bus drivers and depots are in the hands of the bus companies, which have rubbished the Competition Commission’s interim report—well, they would—and are threatening a scorched earth policy for any passenger transport executive or authority that decides on re-regulation. What help can the Minister give to those transport authorities?
Everyone knows that we are dealing with a coalition Government. The Minister’s views are well known from the time before he was a Minister, as are the Secretary of State’s. The Secretary of State is more of a free marketeer, and the Minister believes in the instruments in the 2008 Act, but when the bus industry is declining, the balance between the two parts of the coalition, resulting in a watching brief and agnosticism on the industry’s future, is not satisfactory. I should be grateful if the Minister told us his view.
My final point is that the present Government and Governments for the past 25 years have not done enough for the quarter to one third of people who do not have access to a car and rely completely on buses. One of the most appalling sarcastic comments made by the last Prime Minister, made in response to a Birmingham Member who asked what he would do about the loss of a bus service in Birmingham, was that he would immediately call a Cabinet meeting. He said that sarcastically, but Cabinet Ministers should discuss bus services. They are vital for many millions of people in this country and they have been neglected or given too low a priority for long enough. I look forward to the Minister’s support in protecting and helping the bus industry at a time of inevitable cuts. That is possible.
I congratulate Graham Stringer on securing this debate. Although passenger numbers are on the decline throughout the country, I understand that buses remain the most popular form of public transport. Usage is on the increase in Brighton and Hove, which bucks the national trend.
In the city of Brighton and Hove, which includes my constituency of Hove and Portslade, we are fortunate to have a good bus service. We benefit from a network of many routes, frequent buses, and well-maintained bus shelters. I pay tribute to the managing director of Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company, Roger French, for his excellent management of the network in previous years. Increasingly, the company has been able to make use of new technology, such as real-time information screens at bus stops and smartcard readers on buses. While that is great news for residents of Brighton and Hove, I would argue that more competition is needed to protect the interests of bus passengers in future.
The Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company is owned by Go-Ahead, one of the five biggest bus service providers that together account for 69% of the country’s bus services. In areas such as my constituency, where one company operates over 95% of the public bus services, not much can be done when fare rises are proposed, as will happen later this month. Passengers cannot go elsewhere to get a cheaper ticket.
More competition would go some way towards maintaining best value for consumers and continue to keep pressure on efficiencies. As the situation stands, however, the many barriers faced by new companies that are setting up bus services effectively restrict competition. Although in theory schemes are open to all companies that wish to take part, the costs of doing so are so prohibitively high that in practice they are open only to large companies that can afford to take part. A case in point is the real-time information system. Electronic display boards are now located on most bus stops in the centres of Brighton and Hove and provide real-time information about bus times. I have witnessed at first hand the system in operation at the Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company’s operational centre, and it is very impressive. The system is open to all bus operators, but only if they pay substantial costs for the on-bus radio system, transponders and any necessary back-office equipment.
Some charges levied on transport companies are implemented in a way that penalises small companies. Although some charges vary according to the number of vehicles a company operates, meaning that larger companies pay more, other charges are fixed irrespective of size. Such fixed charges mean that small companies effectively end up paying a higher proportion of their income than larger ones. Charges for the registration of a public service, for example, or an application for an operating licence or a transport manager’s certificate of professional competence, are the same regardless of the size of the company or the number of routes and buses involved, meaning that larger companies can absorb the cost more easily.
In my constituency, there is a small bus company called The Big Lemon that runs its buses on waste cooking oil from local restaurants. It has been beset by problems as a result of being a smaller company, to the extent that, as I understand, it has had to submit evidence to the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading in order to protect its interests and, ultimately, to prevent it from being forced to cease operations. Fare increases have recently been announced by the Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company, and much has been made locally of the scale of those increases. In some places, fares will rise by as much as 20% and on most routes a return fare will cost as much as £4. However, on routes where The Big Lemon is in direct competition with the Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company, the fare will be only £2.50. That means that passengers in some parts of the city will pay 60% more than in other areas where competition has forced competitive pricing.
The Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company has stated that the fare increases are being introduced to reflect the rising price of fuel. However, as the managing director of The Big Lemon, Tom Druitt, pointed out, fuel does not cost more on different routes, and the difference in price seems designed to stamp out the competition represented by the smaller company. The Big Lemon also encountered a barrier to extending competition in the city when it attempted to join the quality bus partnership. As I understand it, that partnership is an informal agreement between the Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company and the council, and is not open to other companies or routes at present. The Big Lemon has also encountered difficulties in publicising information and timetables. It found that priority for such matters was given to the Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company, with the main information about fares and timetables on the council’s website referring to services provided by the larger company. Smaller providers are mentioned and a link to their websites is provided, but the main emphasis is on the Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company. That situation could easily be rectified at no cost to the taxpayer, and it would encourage competition.
The attitudes and actions that I have mentioned are obstacles to increasing competition. If one small company has encountered such difficulties, how many more companies are experiencing problems around the country? Bus companies that benefit from large Government subsidies naturally have an advantage that small start-up companies do not have. In my constituency and across the city, the Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company receives a large subsidy from the city council—money that would make a huge difference to small operators such as The Big Lemon. There is a compelling argument that we should encourage the distribution of subsidies on so-called loss-making routes towards new, smaller, innovative companies, thereby increasing competition and benefiting passenger choice and transport quality in Brighton and Hove and beyond. As councils do not have direct control over the fares levied by bus companies, that is one way in which greater competition in bus services could be encouraged.
As mentioned earlier, there are other ways in which the council could assist in making the market more competitive such as providing fair website information and the quality bus partnership scheme. In summary, I would like to see measures implemented that are focused on delivering sensible competition and a code of practice that would put new operators on a level playing field, thereby reducing barriers to entry in the market.
Let me begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. May I congratulate my hon. Friend Graham Stringer on securing what I think is an important debate? He was kind enough to mention my constituency in his opening remarks, and I think that the example of Hartlepool and its bus users provides an almost perfect case study to illustrate why competition in the bus market is not working.
I would not disagree with the notion of competition in the bus market if it resulted in wider choice and a better-quality service for passengers. We would all agree that in an ideal situation, competition should keep operators on their toes, as they would be mindful of rivals securing a greater share of the market and would offer a more comprehensive service, a better fare and ticketing structure, more punctual journey times and more modern vehicles.
The situation in my constituency, however, is particularly frustrating because Hartlepool has all the ingredients for a good and comprehensive bus service. It is a relatively compact town; there are outlying villages, which I will mention in a moment, but at its heart is an urban centre just 2 miles wide and 5 or 6 miles long. Travel is self-contained and most journeys in Hartlepool take place within that urban centre, which therefore lends itself to a rapid, reliable, co-ordinated and integrated public bus transport system. About 40% per cent of households in my constituency do not have regular access to a car, which feeds into the need for a comprehensive public transport service to avoid isolation for many of my constituents.
Further afield, Teesside university in nearby Middlesbrough, the petrochemical and process industry cluster in Wilton, and the new logistical and distributional commercial opportunities at Teesport could mean that many of my constituents would have access to better employment rates and opportunities to participate in higher education if those places were connected by better public transport links. My constituency would benefit in every possible sense. From my experience in Hartlepool, however, it is clear that no effective market is in operation. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton touched on that with an example from Greater Manchester, and I will discuss that point in more detail later.
Bus services are dominated by one provider, Stagecoach, which has a significant share of the wider UK bus market. Such dominance has led to inefficiencies and distortions in the market—that is true not only in my constituency but, as we have heard, across the country. My hon. Friend quite rightly mentioned the profits made by Stagecoach, and it is worth reiterating that point. For the year ending
How was that allowed to happen? The answer is contained in the company’s annual report. Its operating and financial review states that its business model for its UK bus operations in the regions is based on an
“emphasis on lightly regulated bus operations enabling management to vary prices, operating schedules and timetables in response to developments in each local market—” and this is the key phrase—
“without significant hindrance from regulation.”
It is therefore clear that Stagecoach seeks to cherry-pick profitable routes and discards socially or economically vital services the moment the taxpayer fails to take the risk on its behalf and subsidies are ended. The company is able to do so without the hindrance of an effective regulatory regime that could insist that such services are maintained for the good of the community.
The business model boasted about in the annual report is shown to be true when one looks at my constituency. As I said earlier, Stagecoach is by far the most dominant bus operator in Hartlepool. Arriva and Go North East provide a small number of services that travel in and out of the constituency, but in the main Stagecoach has a monopoly on the market, with about 80 % to 85% of market share.
The bus market in my constituency is striking for the absence of medium-sized bus companies. It has been difficult, as we have heard in relation to other places, for small and new entrants to the market to gain ground. Promising new entrants such as Tees Valley Coaches have provided some new routes, but have found it difficult to gain a foothold in the market and are now pulling back from providing routes.
A far too dominant player in the market has ensured that there is no incentive to improve services. Punctuality is poor. The traffic commissioner’s target is that 95% of buses should be on time. In Hartlepool, that figure is 81%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton said, ticketing arrangements, too, undermine choice and competition. In my constituency, Stagecoach operates a ticket discount scheme, but it is available only for Stagecoach services, rather than bus services across the town. Passengers are dissuaded from using other operators—of which they have only a limited choice—because of the additional cost of buying yet another ticket.
Most damning of all—my hon. Friend kindly mentioned this—is the abrupt cancellation of services, which leaves my constituents without access to transport. Hartlepool borough council faces cuts in its budget from central Government of about 25%, and it has decided to stop all subsidised services. That means that there are in effect no bus services in my constituency after 6 pm or on Sundays. Some outlying areas of my constituency—villages such as Elwick or Dalton Piercy, as well as the central area of the Burbank estate—now have no bus service whatever, which has left residents in those areas completely isolated.
The recent report by the Select Committee on Transport, “Bus Services after the Spending Review”, cites many comments from residents of my constituency. Miss Raw, for example, says that the bus service from Elwick to Hartlepool has been withdrawn, leaving the village completely cut off from Hartlepool. She states:
“I do not drive and therefore am finding it very difficult to shop for essentials, visit doctors, dentists, opticians, banks, hospital visits etc. Also I no longer visit friends, go to the theatre, or cinema, especially in the evening. In fact we are completely isolated.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever one’s general view on the bus deregulation of the 1980s, the one thing that we know is that it was an unmitigated disaster in villages and very rural areas, as buses were reduced either to a highly limited service or, in many cases, withdrawn altogether? That compounded the problem of rural poverty, which is often not addressed in an urban environment.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton referred to the same issue. Economic activity is very much contingent on the availability of good transport and connectivity. Concerns have been raised with me both by constituents living in the urban part of Hartlepool and by constituents living in outlying areas, who say that they cannot take up a job because they cannot get to the place of work as a result of the absence or removal of the bus service.
Another of my constituents cited in the Select Committee report is Mrs Powers, who states:
“Since the removal of the bus service my daughter…has NO way of getting to and from college…Is she surely not entitled to the education she deserves? My daughter works very hard and gets excellent grades and I feel appalled that her future education is being jeopardised in this way!”
It is important to mention the importance of access to education in rural areas. My hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones will be concerned about that as well.
It is clear that competition in the bus market in Hartlepool has failed. Deregulation since the mid-1980s has not proved to be a success. The market is characterised by too dominant a player, making excessive profits by cherry-picking the busy and popular routes and ensuring that passenger choice is left behind. For those services that remain, punctuality rates are behind what should be expected, because operators do not fear that another company might come along and provide a better service that takes away their market share.
It is not the case that things have been tested and found to fail—they have not been tested. We have to try the competition route, which should be given the chance to work under the new system. We have to make it work, rather than pretending that it has already happened and been found to fail.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I would suggest that we have had more or less the possibility of open competition and certainly deregulation since the mid-1980s. I accept the point that perhaps that has not meant free and open competition and there may be barriers to entry because of the structure—the way in which the legislative framework has been put in place. However, looking at the examples from my constituency, I would suggest that there has been market failure and, as a Labour politician, I would suggest that where there is market failure, the state should intervene. The hon. Gentleman and I will possibly disagree in our analysis of the reasons for that, but certainly we would agree that there has been market failure. I will ask the Minister, in trying to respond to the issue of market failure, to consider a number of things.
I acknowledge the weight of my hon. Friend’s remarks. Does he agree that where serious competition has taken place in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Preston and Manchester, where bus companies have set about competing with one another and where, in the short term, bus fares have dropped and there has been a conveyor belt of buses, the consequences have been worse congestion and pollution and then one bus company withdraws?
That is one of the fears because of the way in which the bus market currently operates, with the dominance of four or five big players in the market. They have the bargaining power and, frankly, the cash to be able to hound smaller operators out of business. For example, in the north-east a number of years ago, a new and ambitious operator wanted to come into the market, but the big dominant operator of the time, which was Stagecoach, hounded it out by providing zero fares—free fares—at certain times. Stagecoach had the cash flow to be able to do that, so there is market failure, with domination by big players.
I hope that the Minister will respond to a number of points. I urge him to be bold when considering the Competition Commission’s report on bus services. He needs to examine why there has been so little take-up of the quality contract partnerships introduced by the previous Government. I urge him to undertake further work to see whether such partnerships need to be made easier to operate and enforce. To help with that, the Minister should consider whether franchising of local bus services within an area such as Hartlepool could provide a better quality of service and ensure that local authorities can determine the priorities on behalf of their residents. The Government need to be bold and radical for the good of passengers in Hartlepool and elsewhere. I strongly believe that they should re-regulate the market to ensure that local bus services are run for the benefit of passengers and communities, rather than purely for shareholders.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Graham Stringer on securing this very important debate, as I know that he has taken a keen interest in these issues for a number of years. I welcome the chance to contribute to the debate from the Opposition Front Bench. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter.
On the specific issue of competition in the bus industry, we need to examine the deregulation of the buses to understand how we have ended up with the current situation. As my hon. Friend outlined, it is now 25 years—almost to the day— since the deregulation of the bus industry outside London. Of course, in London, Transport for London, which is accountable to the Mayor, specifies in detail which services are provided. It decides the routes, timetables, fares—everything down to the colour of the buses. The services themselves are operated by private companies through a competitive tendering process, but there is no on-road competition.
In the rest of the country, such as in the Greater Manchester constituencies that my hon. Friend and I represent, there is, in theory at least, a free market, so anyone can start up a bus service as long as they meet minimum safety and operating standards. Bus operators are practically free to run whatever services they like, charge whatever fares they like and, as we saw with the UK North debacle in Manchester, use whatever vehicles they like. Monitoring and regulation of reliability and vehicle cleanliness is largely minimal. Although it is supposed to be a competitive market, the majority of services are provided by just a few bus companies. As my hon. Friend correctly outlined, the vast majority of commercial services in my south Manchester constituency are operated by Stagecoach, in contrast to his north Manchester constituency, where the predominant provider is First. Local authorities will fill the gaps where there is an inadequate commercial service, and such local authority-funded routes are operated by private companies through a competitive tendering process.
My hon. Friend was right to raise concerns about how some of these big companies play the deregulated system. In 2004, before I came to the House, I was a local councillor on Tameside metropolitan borough council. Just before the general election in 2005, Stagecoach Manchester removed the well-used 375 bus service, which used to link Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport, Stockport town centre, Denton, Ashton town centre and Tameside general hospital. That service between the two district general hospitals was an important link for the communities along the route.
The route was commercially viable, making about £50 a week profit, but it was never going to make Stagecoach Manchester a lot of money. Nevertheless, it was a commercial service, it was commercially viable and it made a profit, albeit at the margins. However, Stagecoach decided to withdraw the service to the two district general hospitals, so that the route went only to Stockport and Ashton. Anyone who wanted to go to the hospitals had to get on another bus at Stockport bus station or Ashton bus station.
Stagecoach then decided to split the new service in two. The 375 became the 317A and the 317B. In the middle of the route, people had to get off one bus and wait for the next one to arrive. That made the service non-profit-making overnight. There was no change to the route, but splitting it in two meant that it was not commercially viable. Stagecoach therefore went cap in hand to the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority for not one public subsidy, but two. That highlighted loud and clear how Stagecoach Manchester played the system, turning a service that was profit-making—albeit marginally—into two subsidised services, which is outrageous.
Across the country, the picture on deregulation is mixed. In some areas, services have undoubtedly improved, as we heard from Mike Weatherley, and some bus companies have invested in new bus fleets. In many areas, however, it is fair to say that deregulation over the past 25 years has resulted in a much worse service, which costs taxpayers and passengers alike much more. Figures produced by the Passenger Transport Executive Group on behalf of the passenger transport executives in the six metropolitan conurbations outside London show that bus fares have increased by 94% in those areas in the years since deregulation, while the number of those using buses has fallen by 46%. In some PTE areas, the decline has been even greater, with ridership down by 65% in South Yorkshire since deregulation.
Deregulation has had a number of other negative knock-on effects. It is much harder for local authorities to put in place long-term bus networks or to properly integrate bus services with other transport modes, such as rail and light rail, particularly where those services are operated by competing businesses, as in north Manchester, where, until recently, the trams were operated by Stagecoach and the buses were predominantly operated by First. As my hon. Friends have said, deregulation also makes it much more difficult to provide a competitively priced multi-modal ticketing system like the London Oyster card.
One of the more worrying aspects of the changes is the effect on socially necessary bus services, as we heard from my hon. Friend Mr Wright. There has been a gradual reduction in off-peak and lifeline estate services, with more focus on more profitable major bus routes. In a market-driven environment, commercially driven bus operators will of course concentrate more on the more profitable commuter routes and less on socially necessary services. With the scope for cross-subsidy removed, the cost of the diminishing subsidised network has increased massively—
With many bus services used disproportionately by people on lower incomes and by those without access to a car, the socially excluded are worst hit by service reductions. For example, two out of every five jobseekers say the lack of transport is a barrier to getting a job.
When considering bus services, we really must take account of the policies being implemented by the current Government. Many of the cuts are happening not by chance, but by choice. The Government have made a number of critical decisions that I do not just fear but know will have a real effect on bus services. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton said, there is the 28% cut to local authority funding for local transport, which includes money for subsidising unprofitable bus routes. Support will be reduced by £95 million between 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Secondly, the Government are changing the way councils and bus operators are reimbursed for the concessionary fares scheme for older people, taking £223 million from the scheme between 2010-11 and 2011-12. Thirdly, from January 2012, they are reducing by a fifth the rebate for additional fuel costs for running unprofitable bus services, and that will particularly affect rural areas, as my hon. Friend said. That will take away a further £254 million in support for bus services between 2010-11 and 2011-12.
We are already seeing that these changes mean the end of council-funded rural, evening and weekend buses in many parts of the country. With rising costs, the need to maintain profit margins and the state of local budgets contributing to fare rises, the changes will largely mean service reductions in some of the most isolated parts of the country.
When the Prime Minister made his election pledge to protect free bus travel for pensioners, or at least to protect their passes, he did not tell them that, in doing so, he would take away their bus services instead. The sad fact is that the situation on bus cuts is likely to get worse. Forecasts by PTEG show that, by 2014, fares will have increased by a further 24% in real terms in metropolitan areas, while service levels will decline by 19% and patronage will decline by 20%.
Indeed. In places such as Greater Manchester, there was a long-standing concessionary fares scheme before the national bus pass scheme was introduced, and pensioners paid a small amount. Under the bus pass scheme, the concessionary fare was available on peak services until it was removed this year—in the peak period, pensioners now have to pay the full fare. My constituents make the same point as the hon. Gentleman’s and would sooner pay something than lose their service altogether. It is clear that all parties at the last general election pledged to protect the bus pass, but there is no point people having that bit of plastic if they do not have the buses to use it on.
The situation is already bad, but it will undoubtedly become increasingly difficult to maintain current service levels when spending reductions deepen in successive years. In non-metropolitan areas outside London, there have been significant cuts to supported bus services, with some local transport authorities withdrawing funding from all such services, and we have heard first hand about the appalling situation in Hartlepool.
Let me turn briefly to the level of competition between the bus companies. As we know, the Competition Commission is investigating the local bus market and published its provisional findings in May this year. Its provisional findings included the view that profits are higher than they would be if the market were competitive and that too many operators face little or no competition in their areas. The competition authorities recently looked at tactic co-ordination between bus companies, and that has certainly raised a few questions about how truly competitive the bus industry is. The interim report also found that short-term bus wars on the streets, such as we experienced a few years back in Manchester, when the big bus companies used an extremely aggressive approach to drive out the smaller competition and secure their monopolies, were not the way forward, and that more should be done to facilitate multi-operator ticketing. Although we await the full report later this year, the interim report makes interesting reading and helps to inform our debate today.
Of course it was the previous Labour Government who set the ground for improvements to be made to local bus services. We set in progress ways of tackling some of the worst effects of deregulation. Indeed, quality contracts—or the provision for them—were introduced by the previous Government as a key to improvements in bus standards. In hindsight I think that our party would like to have gone further with those improvements to service provision for passengers, and with the implementation of quality contracts. Certainly, those contracts could allow bus companies to concentrate on developing the local market for bus travel, but it is understandable, given the points that have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton, and given the burden of risk on local authorities as opposed to the bus companies, that those measures have not been pursued as vigorously as they should have been. Quality contracts would help to set minimum standards, making it possible for them to be more stable, with less frequent changes to fares, times and frequencies. In turn that would help bus services to be more reliable, because they would be monitored and good performance would be incentivised.
It is fair to say that the current set-up does not always benefit the passenger, and we need to consider other ways of making our local buses work more effectively. We need to think about ways of addressing the issues that have been raised today, and ways of empowering local authorities and communities, allowing them more of a say in the way their bus services are run, and what the routes should be. Perhaps we need to look at ways to make it easier for passenger transport executives and local transport authorities to enter into voluntary partnerships, statutory quality partnerships and a more balanced quality contract system. That could allow for a system of franchising bus services to local transport authority specifications, similar to the system used to provide bus services in London, allowing a service that is responsive to what passengers want and reintroducing some long-term planning to the system.
I want to ask the Minister what consideration the Government have given to allowing local authorities more powers over local bus services. What assessment has the Minister made with regard to quality contracts? Does he view them as a way to set minimum standards and to make service levels more stable and reliable? What assessment has he made of the greater powers that Transport for London has over local buses and the performance in relation to bus services in London, as compared with what happens outside London, particularly in major conurbations, although the problem is not exclusive to big cities, but also exists in large and medium-sized towns and rural areas?
There is clearly a wider debate to be had about the way we look at restructuring our bus industry. Deregulation has largely failed, and that has been recognised in the debate. We need to think about restructuring our bus industry. I am sure that the discussion we have had today will help to inform the ongoing debate.
I thank Graham Stringer for raising this important subject and doing so in his usual measured and thoughtful way. His knowledge is considerable, as I discovered when we served in Committee on the Local Transport Act 2008. I am delighted to have rather more time than I thought I might to respond to the debate.
The Government are committed to supporting local bus services and markets through concessionary travel reimbursement, direct operator subsidy and our funding of local government. However, as I have made clear before, with those significant amounts of public expenditure invested in the bus market, it is only right to consider whether it is delivering the best service for bus passengers and best value for the taxpayer. The Competition Commission has identified, in its provisional findings, aspects of the local bus market where competition is restricted, prevented or distorted. That cannot be good for passengers if it means that they enjoy less frequent services and have to pay higher fares as a result. If that in turn means that fewer people are able to make use of their local bus, and instead have to travel by other means or cannot travel at all, that has wider, and unwelcome, societal and environmental impacts.
Of course, bus markets are local in nature. Many of the effects will be localised, and I have encouraged the Competition Commission to set out where and in what circumstances it believes competition is failing to materialise. It is important that it should be specific in its comments in the final report. One of the concerns raised by the Competition Commission, which I share, relates to profitability—a point raised by the hon. Members for Blackley and Broughton and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). Excess profitability is an important indicator of ineffective competition. Evidence commissioned by the Department for Transport suggests that profits are particularly high in the largest metropolitan areas, so I have asked the commission to consider whether it can identify specific areas where ineffective competition is most prevalent. A key test of potential remedies will be whether they result in more people travelling on buses and bring about wider benefits to society by helping to create growth and cut carbon emissions.
The inquiry is ongoing, and with representatives of local government and passenger and bus operators, my Department continues to engage with the commission as it prepares to publish its provisional remedies later this month. Hon. Members will understand why I do not propose to anticipate those remedies in my remarks today: it is important that we let the commission, as an independent body, come to its conclusions on the basis of the evidence placed before it. However, I will take this opportunity to respond to the points raised during this debate.
The Local Transport Act 2008 made changes to the provisions of quality contract schemes and partnerships and introduced new forms of legal partnership working. It came into force only in 2009, and the Competition Commission has indicated that quality contracts and quality partnerships may be remedies for the competition problems that it has identified. It is therefore sensible to wait for the final outcome of the inquiry at the end of the year before deciding whether further changes to the regulatory regime are needed.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton asked about the coalition policy as it relates to the 2008 Act. It is on the public record and therefore no secret that the two coalition parties, when in opposition, had differing views on the Act. The Conservatives were more sceptical about the value of quality contracts than were the Liberal Democrats. When the coalition was formed, the decision was taken that, as the process was already under way, the sensible course of action was to wait for the Competition Commission to analyse the market and produce its findings, so that we could proceed on a sound basis, free of prejudice, relying on proper analysis and collated evidence. That remains the position. I do not accept that that is agnosticism—the term used by the hon. Gentleman. It is a sensible decision to wait for the evidence, at which stage we shall analyse it internally and decide what action, if any, we should take in response to the findings of the commission. That process is under way in relation to the structure and landscape of the market.
The hon. Gentleman no doubt expects me to make the point that the landscape about which he and his colleagues complain is largely the one that their party’s Government created, which we inherited. He and the hon. Members for Hartlepool and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) will also be aware that it is on the record of the Local Transport Bill Committee that, had the amendment that I tabled been accepted, many of the actions that Opposition Members now ask for would be unnecessary—the measures would already be law. We did not make more progress at that time because of the then Government’s reluctance to go further.
Before the Competition Commission report is published, however, I want to encourage joint working between bus operators and local authorities. We have seen good results, with local authorities and operators working effectively in partnership to improve bus services in places such as Birmingham, Brighton and Oxford.
My hon. Friend Mike Weatherley and I are lucky in having good bus services in our area. I too pay tribute to Roger French, who has been most effective in driving up bus patronage. He has shown that it can work and that the moaning Minnies who say that bus patronage is going into decline are wrong, as the examples of Brighton, Hove and other places prove. My hon. Friend complained about the effective monopoly that operates in Brighton and Hove and the difficulties faced by the Big Lemon service; he clearly wants to give the Big Lemon aid in some form. The monopoly of which he complains is not terribly different from that which the hon. Members for Hartlepool and for Blackley and Broughton complained about. One operator having an 85% to 90% market share inevitably makes it difficult for other companies to enter the market, and it can be difficult to challenge. My hon. Friend is right to say that the cost of fuel does not relate to the route on which is it used and that differential pricing is clearly a result of competition along those routes. The absence of competition clearly enables Brighton and Hove to charge a higher rate for its bus services. That is a striking example, but I shall ask my officials to ensure that the entire report of our debate is passed to the Competition Commission so that it can see what has been said and take it into account, albeit quite late in its deliberations.
I want to encourage more of that sort of partnership activity so that bus passengers get the services that they deserve and expect. More partnerships need to tackle punctuality, which is the No. 1 priority for passengers and which can be compromised by any number of issues, from road works to poor planning. It is not clear whether the 81% punctuality figure referred to by the hon. Member for Hartlepool was the result of a failure of the bus company or of, for example, congestion, which is a problem for the local authority. Punctuality is not a matter only for the bus companies; there is also a local authority aspect. That demonstrates the need for authorities to be fully involved and to work sensibly with bus companies in their areas.
The Government are looking for operators and local authorities to work in partnership, sharing punctuality and traffic management data to benchmark and improve performance. To facilitate this, a significant number of Vehicle and Operator Services Agency examiners are being trained to engage proactively with operators and local transport authorities to ensure that proper procedures and lines of communication are in place. That new approach is being introduced gradually and has been in place in the north-west since June. I assure hon. Members that traffic commissioners will continue to take effective enforcement action when performance is poor, and that any lessons learned from the north-west will be absorbed before full roll-out takes place. The hon. Member for Hartlepool may want to contact his local traffic commissioner if he is concerned about punctuality in his area.
As the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton said, another important concern for passengers is integration, especially in fares and ticketing. I share his view that what he described as a simple fare and ticketing structure, with through-ticketing, can be effective in driving up passenger numbers. I absolutely agree and the Department is focusing on that aspect. My vision is of seamless end-to-end journeys, with tickets being available at a decent price and being valid on all services in a city, not only those of the dominant operator.
I shall continue to encourage the development of integrated multi-operator ticketing schemes, and my officials are actively engaged with the Competition Commission and bus operators in helping to remove barriers to their successful implementation. I firmly believe that bus tickets should be valid with more than one operator, but they should also be valid over much wider areas and easy to use. That will be of clear benefit to passengers. That is why I am committed, with operators and public sector bodies, to delivering the infrastructure necessary to enable most public transport journeys to be undertaken using smart ticketing by December 2014.
In many places, including in Greater Manchester and other large metropolitan areas, smart ticketing is already being introduced by local authorities and major national bus operators. It is fuelled by the smartcard incentive offered by the Government through the bus service operators grant and other pump-priming schemes that we have offered since the election. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton referred to the use of BSOG, saying that there was a better way of targeting it. If I understand him correctly, he believes that it may be more effective to hand it to local authorities to be used for general transport uses. However, it is difficult to square the complaint that the money being made available for buses is diminishing with the argument that what is available should be deployed for wider transport purposes.
I apologise to the Minister if I did not make my position clear. I suggested handing the money to PTEs and local transport authorities, not for general transport use but for the targeted improvement of bus services. It should be used to help particular bus services, not for other transport schemes.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification; he wants the money to be ring-fenced for bus services.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked me to initiate a review of BSOG to see whether it is deployed to the best advantage. As far as possible, our time scale is designed to coincide with the Competition Commission report, so that if changes are necessary to the landscape of the industry or to that form of financial help, things could be combined at that stage. To that end, I have been in discussion with the industry and local authorities to hear their aspirations and views on the matter. I shall try to come up with a solution that is satisfactory for both parties—I shall then go on to deal with the Israel-Palestine problem. I hope that we might make some progress. It is in the interests of local authorities and bus operators to come to a sensible arrangement on BSOG.
We understand that good bus services can contribute to both of the Government’s key transport priorities—creating growth and cutting carbon emissions. By providing an attractive alternative to the car, not only can we cut carbon but we can unclog the congestion that chokes off our local economies. However, it must be remembered that we also have to deal with the budget deficit.
I do not want this to be a sterile debate—a phrase used by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton—about why we are where we are, but I have to respond to the comments of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, the Opposition spokesman. It would have been helpful if he and his colleagues had acknowledged some responsibility for the financial situation in which we find ourselves, rather than pretending that the cuts are somehow malicious and optional, and could have been avoided. That is not the case. I would like to think that we could work across the House to ensure that the impact on bus services is minimised in the constructive way suggested by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton.
I shall deal briefly with the three elements of funding referred to earlier. About 80% of bus services are run commercially. I will leave aside questions about the consequences of that for the market and for local government support. The money from the Department for Communities and Local Government is not relevant to those services. At present, local authorities rely on BSOG. The reduction in that grant was trailed long in advance, at the time of the spending review, and it will not take effect until April next year. There has been an 18-month lead in, and the cut was much less than the bus industry anticipated—and much less than Members of Parliament expected. At the time, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents the bus industry, indicated that the cut was manageable and could be introduced without a diminution of services or general fare increases. That is what it said. It is important to point out that bus companies can take the BSOG arrangements in their stride. That should not, therefore, lead to cuts in services.
The basis of the reimbursement arrangements has not changed one iota. The hon. Gentleman will know that primary legislation stipulates that bus companies should be no better and no worse off from handling concessionary travel. That legislative requirement has not changed, and local authorities are required to reimburse bus companies accordingly. All that has happened is that the Department for Transport has issued some guidance to help local authorities to calculate how they should reimburse bus companies, and that, as Members will appreciate, is quite a complicated business. The ultimate test remains the same. If bus companies are unhappy with the reimbursement they have received from a local authority, it is open to them to appeal and their case will be handled independently.
One of the changes that I have made is to ensure that, if there is an appeal, it is possible for a local authority to win. Hitherto, when bus companies have appealed, their contribution has either been reduced or it has stayed the same. Now the appeal process can assess whether local authorities have had to pay too much and reduce the costs to them. That seems to be a much fairer way of dealing with those matters. The appeal process is open, fair and independent and can deal with any complaints that people have.
As for cuts in funding to local authorities, we all accept that local authorities have a challenging settlement. That is particularly the case, may I say for the benefit of the Member who has disappeared, for rural areas and for those services that are supported by local authority funding because they are not commercial to run. Having said that, the pattern of responses from local authorities across the country is varied. Unfortunately, some councils have taken something of an axe to local services, while others have made very few cuts. That is a matter for localism. It is up to local councils to exercise their increased freedom and to decide how they are going to spend their pot of money. We will increasingly see a situation in which one person living in an area will say, “Why is it that my county council has cut these bus services when the county council next door has not cut bus services at all?” That is a perfectly proper question to ask and one that we are trying to encourage in our drive towards localism.
I well understand why my hon. Friend made that point, which has been made by a number of others. All I can say is that the Prime Minister has made it clear that the concessionary fares regime for local bus travel is not to be compromised and that requiring a charge would do just that. All I can undertake to do is to ensure that my hon. Friend’s comments are passed up the chain so that others are aware of that view.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton mentioned the monitoring of cuts. Let me assure him that we are taking steps to establish the picture. I have asked my officials to do so on a rolling basis. We are checking where services are being significantly cut and where they are being protected. Ultimately, it is a matter for localism, but we have to understand what is happening.
The hon. Gentleman failed to mention the introduction of a £560 million grant, a significant amount, from the local sustainable transport fund, which can be used to drive up the number of bus services in a particular area as part of an integrated package to create growth and cut carbon. That has been well received. If we take the total package of measures under the loose heading of sustainable travel, the £560 million represents an increase in funding compared with what was available under the previous Government. Therefore, despite the difficult economic circumstances and the budget cuts that have taken place, we have made an increase in funding, which has been well received by councils. Every council that could qualify under that scheme, with the exception of the Isles of Scilly, has applied for funding. We had a good first round. I am happy to say that, in Manchester, the key component bid was approved, which is a cycling project for the city. Moreover, a large project from Manchester has applied for a significant amount of money and it has been shortlisted for the final approval process. Therefore, steps are being taken to address the issue of sustainable transport more widely as well.
I am happy to say that I was referring to an entirely different amount of Government funding that may be forthcoming depending on the outcome as regards the local sustainable transport fund. However, I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the particular scheme. He just needs to contact my office to arrange a time.
I am interested that both Conservative and Labour Members have indicated unhappiness—perhaps for different reasons—with the present arrangements in the bus market. Their comments are useful and timely given the nature of the Competition Commission inquiry and its report. I will pass on to the commission a copy of the transcript of this debate from
Hansard so that it is aware of the comments that Members have made. I will continue to study carefully the representations not just from hon. Members but from people outside to ensure that we proceed in a sensible way.
The Minister is being generous with his time. Both he and I have had a lot of time in this debate because it has not been as well attended as it might have been and that is because it clashed with the Transport Committee, so some of the hon. Members who would have been most interested in contributing are on duty elsewhere. Mr Streeter, I wonder whether we could tell Mr Speaker that this has happened and in future scheduling of these debates, we could look to avoid such clashes of obvious interest.
That is not a matter for me, but the comments have been heard and will no doubt be passed on.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned the situation in London. He was advocating that the powers that are held by TFL might be extended to the rest of the country, which would be quite a change in the arrangements. I am not quite sure whether that is official Labour party policy. If it is, I am interested that he has put it forward today. Although his argument interests me, it is not quite the panacea that some people think. For example, when competition started in Manchester, we heard how there were queues of buses down the main street. I have to say that we get queues of buses in London, many of which are empty, because they have, in some cases, been overprovided, so similar problems arise with one operator—TFL. It is also the case that London buses are much more expensive to run overall and there is quite a cost to the public purse. Although I am not negating the argument in total, I am just making the point that counter arguments have to be taken into account when we consider the landscape after the Competition Commission has reported.
To conclude, buses matter to this Government. My focus is on ensuring that the right funding and regulatory framework are in place to ensure that passengers receive the best possible service, and that taxpayers receive the best possible value from public expenditure.