It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint on securing this debate, which has demonstrated the strength of feeling across the House on the issues that face our local transport networks, particularly in towns.
Stoke-on-Trent is one city, but it is in fact six towns linked together by an artery of roads that all too often neither get people to the place they want to be, nor get them there on time. We struggle in Stoke-on-Trent because of the non-traditional geographical nature of our city. Towns that are no more than 2 miles apart do not have a direct bus route. In one instance, people can stand in one town and almost see the other, yet they have to travel through a third town to get there by bus. It is telling that since 1991, bus usership is up by 8% across the country, but network coverage is down by 30%. That is disproportionately affecting the small towns we all represent.
In places like Stoke-on-Trent, bus companies make operating changes, and that has consequences. In my community, a morning bus service at school time was changed, meaning that young people could either get to school an hour early or 10 minutes late. I am not convinced that the consequential impact of such changes on the day-to-day lives of those we represent is being taken seriously by bus companies or the Government. The Government have given additional powers to the combined authority areas to do proper regulating and franchising of buses, but they have also extended that power to local authorities outside of those combined authority areas, if they can prove they meet the criteria and standards set by the Department for Transport. When the Minister is sums up, will she tell me how many times the Department has granted to local authorities that cover small towns those powers to get directly involved and bring their bus routes back into public ownership?
Municipal bus companies have not been mentioned. There are multiple examples around the country of small towns running their own bus services for public benefit at a profit to the taxpayer, meaning that services can be subsidised from a commercial interest. That is not being talked about and the Government appear to be opposed to the idea. When the Minister sums up, will she explain why she does not think small towns should be in control of their own bus services?