[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair] — Bus Industry

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:04 am on 6th September 2011.

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Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Shadow Minister (Education) 10:04 am, 6th September 2011

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 30 April 2011, Stagecoach made operating profits of about £200 million. Over three quarters of that operating profit—some £153.1 million—was generated solely through its UK bus operations. The profit margin of its UK bus division was 17.1%, as opposed to a 6.5% profit margin for its north American operations and 4.5% for its UK rail division. In its annual report Stagecoach states—boasts—of “sector leading profit margins” within its UK bus operations.

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.”