[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair] — Bus Industry

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 6th September 2011.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 9:30 am, 6th September 2011

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 1 April 2012, there will be a 20% reduction in the bus service operator grant. In passing, I say to the Minister that BSOG is not used in the most effective way. As a general grant to the bus industry it is fine—it helps. However, it would be better if it were given to transport authorities and passenger transport executives so that they could direct it to environmental improvements or particular enhancements to transport, rather than it just being given generally to bus companies.

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%.