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Public Transport: North Staffordshire — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:42 pm on 23rd January 2020.

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Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 2:42 pm, 23rd January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, in this incredibly collegiate and productive debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing it and giving me the opportunity to provide some answers that will please both Government and Opposition Members.

In this Chamber, we are all agreed that bus services matter. They are the best way for people to travel, being the cleanest and the cheapest, whether for getting to work or for accessing social services. We are all agreed that buses are our most vital form of public transport system. Fundamentally, too, buses tackle a number of environmental issues on which we are now leading.

We must not forget that 4 billion bus journeys already take place each year. I am no longer the Minister with responsibility for buses—I am standing in for that wonderful Minister, my hon. Friend George Freeman—but I am still the accessibility Minister, and people with accessibility issues will always travel on buses first and foremost. We need to ensure that we continue to provide the service. We understand the importance of bus services, not only across the country but obviously in Staffordshire. It is wonderful to speak in a debate where everyone is agreed on how we need to go forward, because that makes solutions a lot simpler for Government to provide.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South raised a couple of issues. The introduction of The Knot is a good example of how services can become far more accessible and sexy, especially encouraging younger people to use buses, because it answers some of their problems. The Knot is a multi-operator ticket giving people the flexibility to use any bus, anytime and anywhere across Staffordshire. It sits alongside the Smart multi-operator ticket, which allows passengers to travel on buses provided by different operators across North Staffordshire with just one ticket. Fundamentally, too, there is contactless payment. Busy people and younger customers especially want to ensure that journeys are as easy as possible, and contactless payment is more efficient. National Express West Midlands says that journeys would be speeded up by 10% were people able to use the card in their pocket.

When I appeared before the Select Committee on Transport a while ago, my hon. Friend was robust in challenging me on bus strategy. However, he and I wanted the same thing, and we have got it—we have a win here. First, we have had the announcement of an ambitious and innovative £220 million bus package and, secondly, we are putting together the first ever national bus strategy, which will revolutionise bus services across England.

I hope that my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley will see that we now have a rationale. She can go back to her council and her councillors to say that we now have a path forward with that £220 million and a national bus strategy, which will review all existing funding. Those packages will transform our bus services, especially looking at on-demand services, which are key in rural areas and something that I have always campaigned for as the MP for a rural constituency. My hon. Friend Theo Clarke also spoke passionately about how we ensure that services fit rural areas with fewer passengers but are just as important.

What everyone has been asking about today of course is the super-bus network. That will decrease fares and develop a comprehensive network of bus priority measures to improve the frequency of buses. In particular, my hon. Friend Aaron Bell—already a powerful champion on behalf of his constituents—nailed his colours to the mast. No doubt he will campaign for public transport in his constituency.

Furthermore, £50 million has already been committed for Britain’s first all-electric bus town—everyone has spoken passionately about the environment here—and an extra £30 million has been committed to bus funding to be paid directly to local authorities to improve existing bus services or restore lost ones. My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands expressed concerns about limited funding, so I hope that she will be able to go back and mention that too. Expressions of interest have been sought for demand-responsive transport, the all-electric bus town and the super-bus pilot.

Access to public transport is incredibly important for people in rural areas, as I mentioned, so we must not forget the £250 million paid directly for bus services in England via the bus service operators’ grant, which helps local authorities to ensure that the buses are running. Also, £43 million of the bus service operators’ grant is paid directly to local authorities to enable them to fund services that might not provide a financial gain for bus companies. There are a few options there. We have heard that the service is mixed, and that passengers are not getting what they want, which is why MPs are present to champion their constituents. To improve existing bus services, we have that extra £30 million for local authorities and we must not forget the £1 billion spent on concessionary bus passes every year.

What will help most Members in the Chamber is a national bus strategy. It is key that the bus strategy both adopts new technology and promotes cleaner air quality, fitting into our decarbonisation strategy. Since 2010, we have set aside more than £250 million to replace and upgrade buses, meaning that we now have more than 7,000 cleaner and better buses on our roads. Most recently, the electric bus launched at Birmingham airport is incredibly quiet and has USB portals. However, that is not as good as the No. 18 bus, which even has wood-effect flooring—I hope to be able to take a journey on that bus in future.

We can go even further. Decarbonisation and tackling congestion were mentioned by both my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. We must drive down congestion to bring greater economic benefits to the villages, towns and cities that they represent. We hope to lead the world, in particular in driving down emissions and by having the first ever all-electric bus town or city, to which we have already made a financial commitment. When we host the 2020 United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, we can use that prime opportunity to talk about how public transport drives our decarbonisation agenda.

Something that is incredibly important for rural transport is demand-responsive transport, which is about journeys that are taken less frequently and might not be economically viable but are just as vital, especially for rural constituencies. This was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford in particular. We are ensuring that funding is available for such transport, so that those services can run for the first few years when they may not be so economical. That is why we have allocated £20 million to demand-responsive transport. I have campaigned for it in my constituency, so if any Member present in the Chamber wishes to talk through how to champion it with their local authority, I am more than happy to do so.

I was asked to be revolutionary, and I hope that I can be towards the end of my speech, but we must remember that we already have a revolutionary Act in place. The Bus Services Act 2017 is crucial in driving down the powers and choices to a local authority. A number of options are already available. The shadow Minister talked about franchising, but there are enhanced partnership options, which are just as valuable in ensuring that buses operate where passengers want them.

On effective partnerships, I was delighted to hear that north Staffordshire has taken full advantage of the Bus Services Act to form a local partnership, but legislation alone is not enough. We need good partnerships between local authorities, parliamentarians and bus operators. It is good to note that every Member is keen to work with other Members, local authorities and bus companies to make that happen. We must not forget the role of bus companies: they must be just as collegiate, open and transparent with local authorities, and provide services in the not-so-profitable areas just as much as in the profitable areas.

Open data is also quite revolutionary. Hon. Members may be surprised to hear that that is not the way the bus services have been run previously, but they need to adopt new technology to ensure that people can jump on a bus without a second thought, and to attract newer, younger passengers, too. Through the bus open data powers in the Act we will go further than before, to open up both routes and timetables early this year and to look at fares data by next year.

Members are keen to ensure that they are doing their bit to secure funding from the transforming cities fund. The Government are investing £2.5 billion to support the development and creation of new and innovative public transport schemes, which will improve journeys and tackle congestion in some of England’s largest cities. Stoke-on-Trent has been shortlisted for an upgrade to its public transport links. The speech by my hon. Friend Jo Gideon was spot on; she put forward a fantastic case. At the Department we welcome the business case put forward by Stoke-on-Trent and supported by hon. Members. It will improve connectivity across the region. I am afraid I cannot say anything more right now, but an announcement on the outcome of the process will be announced in the next few months. The strength of this debate will no doubt be recognised when that decision is made.

I was pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands about alternative forms of mass mobilisation of transport with a low impact that goes beyond buses and trains. I was very keen to hear her proposal to set up a session with fellow Members. I have no doubt that the Department will be keen to hear what they wish to propose, and how that can be taken forward.

Just before I conclude, I want to respond to a few comments made by Members. My right hon. Friend raised the public sector borrowing requirement for school buses, which is something that comes across my desk. Over 98% of buses are fully compliant. I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s anxiety about working with smaller schools and faith schools, but they have had many years of lead time to try to get that right. The temporary exemptions run to the end of July 2020, providing even more time for the sector to become compliant. We must remember that it does not apply if the vehicles have fewer than 22 seats. If my right hon. Friend wishes to meet me or my Department once again—she does so frequently—we can try to explain that a little more. I hope that the new funding that I announce will give her the confidence to go back to her local authority and tell them that new money is on the way. The next time I am at Alton Towers I will pay a bit more attention to the road and the impact that driving with my family has on the village.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who is a great champion for his constituency already, talked about rail, road and buses. The road is a little beyond my remit, but the Department has heard the comments about the road improvements on the A53. It is for the local authority to bring forward proposals. If it requires any support to put the process in place, the Department or I am more than happy to show my hon. Friend, who is a new Member, the ropes.

I must reflect on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, who spoke passionately about the environment. I hope she can relay back to her constituents our commitment to decarbonisation. She mentioned access to Sunday services, the Cannock Road service and loneliness. The bus strategy is embedded into the Government’s loneliness strategy, which I have previously represented across Whitehall Departments. I hope that demand-responsive transport will provide some succour for her constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made a passionate speech about the funds available. Let us hope that there will be positive news. I am not the Minister responsible, but I know that the Minister responsible is very keen to ensure that we are aware of the situation on the ground. I will ensure that the open invitation is relayed to him, and I hope that a visit will be down the line.

I do not know what to say to the shadow Minister, because what he asks for we are delivering. There is over £220 million and a new bus strategy, so maybe a crack of a smile would not go amiss.