Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered provision of bus services in the North East.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair in this important debate, Mr Dowd. Bus services keep our local communities moving. They provide connections between our homes and communities and our place of work. They allow us to travel, to do our shopping and to attend health and other appointments, and they form an essential link to mainline train services for onward travel. They allow us to socialise safely. For those without cars, they are essential. For those of us with cars, they offer an opportunity to reduce car journeys and so reduce our carbon emissions.
Some 160 million bus journeys were made across the north-east immediately pre covid, and I would hazard a guess that most Members of Parliament will know the high level of concern from constituents when local bus services are changed. Earlier this year many constituents contacted me and their local councillors about changes to the No. 47 bus services from Chopwell to Consett, telling me how the changes had disrupted their journeys to work and other services. Of course, our bus services have faced a huge impact from driver shortages and, like the rest of us, from staff catching covid or facing isolation, causing short-notice cancellations, which all add to the problems.
Speaking of covid, our bus services, and in much of Tyne and Wear our Metro services, have been dramatically affected by covid-19. Those services continued to run throughout lockdown to keep key workers moving. They continued to run as we opened up, then closed down again, and as restrictions changed, to keep us moving, but at a huge cost and with a huge drop in usage. I am a regular bus user myself, as I travel to and from Westminster, around London and at home, and I have seen the fluctuation in bus usage. I say a huge thank you to all the staff who kept our buses, Metro and trains going for those of us who needed to travel, often exposing themselves to greater risk of infection. Their work is appreciated.
Those services, running economically due to low usage, could keep going only through the financial support from Government. The covid-19 bus service support grant ran to August 2021, and local transport authorities paid additional moneys for concessionary travel payments to bus operators, although concessionary usage had in fact dropped very significantly. On the Metro system, the same effect can be seen, with less usage of the system, meaning less income and increased financial pressure.
Why have this debate about buses in the north-east now? Bus services across my constituency face a very real threat. Still suffering from a reduced number of passengers, suffering again from driver shortages and now experiencing increased congestion on our roads, as many of us, even previous bus users, use our cars to avoid the risk of catching covid—
I did not mean to cut my hon. Friend off mid-sentence, because she is making a powerful and timely speech, but she brought to my mind the fact that my constituents in the outer west of Newcastle already have quite poor public transport links. They do not have access to the Metro, and a bus from Throckley, for example, can take an hour to get into the centre of Newcastle, whereas it takes 15 minutes to drive. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government are telling people to get back into the office, increasing the traffic on our roads even further, they should at the very least make sure that we have the funding in our region to support good public transport for all?
As I was saying, we are still suffering from driver shortages, and we are experiencing increased congestion on our roads as many people, even previous bus users, use their cars to avoid the risk of catching covid. Congestion—even pre covid, and now—affects our buses and can reduce their reliability, which is so important to increasing bus usage, and also has an effect on our environment and air quality.
Earlier this year, the Government produced their national bus strategy for England, “Bus Back Better”. I will not comment on the title, but the strategy recognised that the deregulated bus industry, in which commercial operators were free to provide services that ran at a profit, and local transport authorities were left to subsidise routes that they believed were essential, has not served us well. Chapter 1 starts by saying:
“Buses are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to improve transport. Building a new railway or road takes years, if not decades. Better bus services can be delivered in months. Experience shows that relatively small sums of money, by the standards of transport spending, can deliver significant benefits.”
We therefore need to look after and improve our buses, as important links between communities and towns and the train system.
The strategy required local transport authorities to submit bus service improvement plans by the end of October this year showing how they would achieve enhanced partnerships with bus operators to bring about better and more popular services. In the north-east, Transport North East, which brings together Northumberland County Council, Durham County Council, North Tyneside, Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside, worked with the bus operators to submit its bus service improvement plan and set out a major programme of investment worth £804 million to tackle infrastructure and improve services, aiming to recover the ground lost during the pandemic and then to increase passenger numbers.
However, since the Government published the strategy and commissioned £3 billion to fund the bus improvement plans, the amount available has been cut to £1.2 billion—clearly a huge difference in funding, which calls into question the detailed plans submitted by Transport North East and other local transport authorities. As yet there has been no confirmation of how much funding will be allocated to Transport North East for the implementation of the enhanced partnership and the bus improvement plan. I hope the Minister will be able to update us on the timescale for allocating funding and on the criteria to be used, given that the funding available has been significantly reduced after bids had been developed and that plans were due to be implemented from April 2022—just four months away.
In the north-east there is a pressing financial issue threatening our bus services, which could see cuts to the local bus network of up to 20% of mileage from next April. Costs are increasing, for example, for fuel, labour and maintenance, particularly in the context of the shortage of drivers and the intense competition for them. Fare income is still down, due to reduced passenger numbers, which are estimated still to be at 75% of pre-covid numbers. Government funding to support the bus network in the light of that reduced fare income is due to end in March 2022.
Some bus operators are reporting that Government funding to support the bus network for the remainder of the financial year is inadequate and does not in any case cover the cost of their operations. Concessionary travel reimbursements have been paid by local government at pre-pandemic levels throughout the pandemic at the request of the Government. That will end in March 2022, and reimbursement will reduce towards actual levels of ridership, which is currently around 60% of normal rates, as this group of passengers remains uncertain about using bus services.
Nexus’s financial challenges arising from the Government’s decision not to extend covid-19 support for the Metro mean that its current forecast is to reduce expenditure on buses via the concessionary travel reimbursement by £7.5 million in the next financial year, which will inevitably mean a reduction in bus services, contrary to those positive plans developed for the Transport North East bus service improvement plan.
The Government’s confirmation that emergency covid-19 payments for the Tyne and Wear Metro, paid through the pandemic, will cease at the end of March 2022 has created a real problem. As a result, a major shortfall of £20.8 million is forecast in Nexus’s finances for the financial year 2022-23, largely caused by the impact of covid-19 on the passenger numbers of the Tyne and Wear Metro. That financial gap will need to be closed. Short-term savings from cutting Metro services would lead to the loss of yet more passengers, leading to an even bigger deficit and even more problems in maintaining bus services. Clearly, Nexus is looking at other measures, including cost savings, an increased levy on local councils in Tyne and Wear and the use of reserves, but the proposed reduction of £7.5 million in concessionary fare payments as part of the package will hit bus services really hard.
For bus operators, too, there are still real challenges. The bus recovery grant is set to end in March 2022, and bus usage has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels due to reluctance from some former passengers to get back on the bus. As I have said, increased car usage creates congestion, and driver shortages lead to bus cancellations, all creating a challenging situation even before the loss of that £7.5 million. The end of that funding has been described as a cliff edge for our bus services, so I ask the Government to look again before the budget for the next financial year is set in January and to continue to fund emergency payments to Tyne and Wear Metro because of the direct impact on bus services in my constituency and elsewhere in the north-east.
I understand that Nexus, the joint transport committee and the chair of the Tyne and Wear sub-committee have written to the Minister, Baroness Vere, but what is needed urgently is a discussion about the situation to find a way forward that avoids the 20% reduction in bus mileage. That request has the support of businesses in the north-east and the leaders of our health, tourism and education sectors, who want to build a better and greener local economy for the future and have written in support of that proposal.
I ask the Minister whether she, on behalf of Baroness Vere, will commit to meeting Nexus, the other parties involved and me to explore a way forward. This is all very dry and technical stuff, but what it means is important for my constituents and people across the north-east. The bus service improvement plan submitted by Transport North East offers a real chance of improvement for the future of the bus services that we rely on. To repeat the quote from the national bus strategy,
“Buses are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to improve transport.”
My constituents need improvements to make sure that our buses offer a reliable, accessible and more environmentally friendly option for their travel needs. It makes a huge difference to their lives, so I ask the Minister again whether she can update us on the timetable for allocating funding for the bus service improvement plans, and how the funds will be allocated given the reduction that I have spoken about. Most urgently, my constituents cannot afford their bus services to be reduced by 20% or even more. The villages, small towns and communities across the Blaydon constituency, such as Chopwell and Kibblesworth and all the places in between, need to retain their vital links to our towns, our health services and our other essential services.
Any reduction in buses will make already difficult journeys impossible. We need additional funding to make sure that they continue to run and can improve. Without that funding, Transport North East’s positive plans for improvements will be undermined from the start. Again, I ask the Minister to agree to set up a meeting with Baroness Vere, Nexus, Transport North East and me to find a way of continuing the covid-19 support to Nexus. We need action from the Government to prevent this bus funding crisis from hitting our communities. We really cannot afford to miss the bus. Action is needed now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist on securing this important debate. Many of us speak based on our experience of inhabiting two different worlds when it comes to public transport. I am sure you appreciate, Mr Dowd, that inside the M25 there is a plethora of public transport options: a frequent and reliable bus service, the underground, and black cabs and 24-hour taxis available in minutes. We also have access to a constant stream of real-time data.
Outside the M25, in my constituency, when I wait at a bus stop, the timetables are more aspirational than informative; the bus will arrive when it comes. Making plans that rely on the bus network in my constituency is what separates the optimists from the pessimists—that is not just about our choice of football teams. The only thing more unreliable than the buses is the Northern Rail coastal train on a match day—a most appalling service of two carriages, once an hour.
Independent analysis of the Government’s transport spending by the Institute for Public Policy Research North think-tank shows that the north has received just £349 per person, compared with £864 per person in London, since the Conservative party took office in 2010. Far from the northern powerhouse, shared prosperity or levelling up, northern England has been short-changed by the Government over the last decade to the sum of £86 billion.
Public transport is too important to fail. Whether moving people to support the economy, to shop on our high streets or to work, unreliable and expensive bus services can have a significant bearing on an individual’s life chances and living standards. We need a change in mindset from the Government. Buses, trains and metro systems are vital public services for strengthening and growing our economy—not secondary distractions if situated outside London. Regional transport services need to recover from the disastrous policy of deregulation and privatisation of the 1980s.
Decisions around the regulation and control of bus services should rest with local government and transport authorities—democratically elected and accountable to the public. These services should be run in the public interest, safeguarding vital routes, particularly in rural areas, rather than being run solely in the pursuit of profit, pricing people out from public transport and the life opportunities that good public transport links can deliver.
I am grateful to my former MP, my hon. Friend Liz Twist, for securing the debate. Bus travel is particularly relevant to my constituents in the city of Durham, which has a small city centre surrounded by many rural former pit villages that rely heavily on an underfunded and insufficient local transport network. In villages such as Pittington or Waterhouses, services are essentially non-existent at times.
In particular, home-to-school transport has become a real issue for families, with schools struggling to subsidise costs due to funding cuts and rising costs. For some children in my constituency, school bus travel now costs an outrageous £90 a month. At St Leonard’s, for example, nearly a third of pupils can no longer afford the school bus and have had to seek alternatives, forcing many parents to rely on service buses, which are often unreliable, irregular, inaccessible or unaffordable. My office has received multiple reports of buses driving past stops because they are full, and of services that simply do not show up. One girl was quoted almost £900 per year for a school bus place, even though the stop was a three-mile round trip walk across dangerous roads and unlit wooded paths. Now she is forced to use a service bus, with frequent, unplanned cancellations that often leave her late for school or waiting in the dark for long periods. That has made her very anxious, and her parents have given her a rape alarm for the dark nights.
Headteachers have reported safeguarding concerns, such as bullying and inappropriate comments from adults that have led to police involvement. These problems impact on learning, with some people priced out of key educational opportunities. A headteacher in my constituency told me that talented students are having to miss extracurricular activities because they cannot rely on service buses to get home. The Government simply cannot say they are levelling up our region while children are struggling to get to and from school.
Unfortunately, the issues I have highlighted have a knock-on effect on the wider community. Increased demand around school-run hours is resulting in crowded buses and disruption to commuters, while many parents are now driving their children to school, causing more disruption to local residents and increased air pollution around schools such as Durham Johnston School and St Leonard’s. In more rural areas, there is no public bus and no car, but only an expensive school bus that eats into household incomes during this cost of living crisis.
I am immensely grateful to the headteachers and parents who work tirelessly for a workable solution. However, when it comes to local and central Government, it is like banging my head against a brick wall, with both refusing to take responsibility. When I raised the issue with representatives of Durham County Council, they told me that they agree with the principle of more support for school transport but they cannot do anything to help. I then took it to the previous Schools Minister, who told me that he sympathised but that he, too, could not help me.
I am now working with schools and bus operators to find a solution, but it is only right that we get some support from this Government, who talk so much about levelling up places such as Durham. Can the Minister outline the steps that the Department is taking, alongside colleagues across Government, to ensure that every child and young person in my constituency has an affordable and reliable route to school?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I thank my hon. Friend Liz Twist for securing this important debate.
The Government’s lack of covid-19 support for our Tyne and Wear Metro means that bus services will certainly be cut in our region by £7.5 million next year, and I will explain why. As Members will be aware, the Metro is the third most used light rail network in the whole UK, with pre-pandemic passenger levels of 36 million per annum. Reducing service levels is just not an option for the Metro, but because central Government will not step in and play their part, our councils are being asked to take the burden of £4.1 million of extra payments to keep bus services afloat and help Nexus balance the books. We all know how cash-strapped our councils are, but they are having to pay more and more to cover the gaps that the Government are ignoring and widening. The Government would be wise to remember that our constituents can see that this is happening. It is not exactly levelling up, is it?
Again, our local authorities are being told to bear the brunt of keeping our public services afloat. Most recently, we were given nothing in the Budget on transport, because we have not got a metro Mayor. Meanwhile, down the road, £310 million is being pumped into transport in the Tees valley. I wonder what we should take from that. Are the Government going to hold our area to ransom because we do not have a devolution deal? People in our region have a specific need for bus services, and constituents frequently write to me about the poor bus provision across Sunderland and Washington.
During a recent roving street surgery in Oxclose in my constituency, nearly every household raised the issue of the poor bus service—in fact, it was the issue that was raised most on the doorstep. That was true not just for that area but across the whole of Washington. The issue was also raised at a public meeting I held in South Hylton, which is over in Sunderland, and I have been contacted by constituents in Usworth Hall, an estate with no bus services at all. With commercial companies providing bus services, it is little surprise that, despite being necessary, non-profitable services continue to disappear as local authorities struggle to fill the gaps.
The point of public transport is to offer a safe means of getting places, even during unsociable hours. That is especially necessary as car ownership levels in the north-east’s left-behind neighbourhoods are among the lowest in the country, while rail services range from being limited to being non-existent for the majority of the areas that I represent. So there is high reliance on bus services.
However, as we have heard, bus provision is declining and the communities that I represent are literally being left stranded. Limited rail services for many communities in the north-east only heightens the need for immediate and good bus provision, especially with the Government snubbing rail improvement projects such as the much-needed reopening of the Leamside line, which I know a lot of people in this room support.
The Chancellor has often said that no Government could budget for a pandemic. Well, neither could Nexus or our local authorities, and the effects of the pandemic are still being felt. It is surely the duty of Government to support public transport in its recovery. This is not a Government without money, as was made very clear by the Chancellor’s Budget just last month, with its announcements of tax cuts on short-haul flights and champagne. The decision not to support the Tyne and Wear transport network is a political one, which will see residents lose out every day and the local economy lose out in the long run.
So why are the Chancellor and his team so scared of putting their money, which we know they have, where their mouth, which we also know they have, is? For all their talk about levelling up, they are making their intentions clear by their inaction. Therefore I implore the Government to listen to Nexus, local authority leaders and all of us here today, and to ensure that bus provision in the north-east sufficiently serves our constituents every day of the week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I start by wholeheartedly congratulating my hon. Friend Liz Twist on securing this debate. From the many colleagues who are in the Chamber, we can see how much support there is for a debate on this very important subject.
Nevertheless, we should not be having this debate. I and many colleagues from the north-east have spoken many times about the lack of effective and convenient bus services in our region, and I have often spoken about the huge disparity between the cost of bus tickets in Newcastle and the cost of bus tickets in London. I have said it before and I will say it again, until it stops being true: for £1.55 in London, I can get up to two buses to carry me anywhere across the capital for over 30 miles; but in Newcastle, £1.55 will not even get me three stops up the West Road. If I want to go to beautiful Ashington, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Ian Lavery, which is only 18 miles away, a single ticket will cost me £6.
More than that, while here in London we can see when buses are coming, in Newcastle, at Eldon Square bus station, there is a sign that says, “Working with bus operators to bring you real-time travel information.” That sign has been there for years—they have been working together for years—and we still do not know when buses are leaving from where. That has a real impact on the friction of taking a bus journey; it reduces the useability, functionality and accessibility of buses for my constituents.
As well as comparing with London, we also need to compare with the unfortunately often more convenient and cheaper alternative that my constituents have: the car. As we recently saw at COP26, we want to move away from car journeys towards more journeys on public transport. However, it is cheaper for a family of four to take a car into the centre of Newcastle to go and see the latest Peppa Pig film—I am sure the Prime Minister will approve of that, given that most of my constituents cannot afford the 700-mile round trip to Peppa Pig World—than it is for them to get a bus there and back.
In Newcastle, our buses are critical all the same. Many people rely on them to get to work or school, but the fares that they have to pay are prohibitive. The extortionate bus prices are part of the cost of living crisis facing my constituents and many others across the north-east. Can the Minister tell us when the Government will level down fares in the north-east?
My constituents are not even guaranteed a good service. As we have heard, our bus services are facing rising fuel and maintenance costs and labour shortages, leaving passengers to face enormous disruption. Pay disputes are potentially leading to industrial action across the region and, as we have heard, Transport North East estimates that there will be a 20% reduction in bus mileage from next April.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will share my frustration and disappointment that we still have really noisy, pollution-emitting buses running around our streets. We love buses, but we do not love the pollution, noise or impact on our environment, so much more urgent investment must be put into creating much cleaner, greener buses to drive around our very busy cities.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that intervention; she is absolutely right. As well as the challenge of climate change, the quality of air in Newcastle is of great concern to my constituents and hers. It is not rocket science—the technology is there to have cleaner, greener buses. The Secretary of State for Transport keeps on saying that there are thousands of such buses about to come on to our streets, but we have yet to see them in Newcastle. That is part of the investment that we need to see.
The promises of investment simply do not materialise for the north-east. Speaking of the most recent Budget, Lucy Winskell, the chair of the North East LEP, said that
“government has announced significant transport investment across the rest of the North but not in the North East.”
Whereas other parts of the country received hundreds of millions of pounds in funding, with some even receiving over £1 billion, the north-east lost out yet again.
Before deregulation in the ’80s, we had a transport network. Some of us are old enough to remember that people could travel across the region, from bus to Metro, on one transfer ticket. That system worked brilliantly, partially because we had control over our buses. When Margaret Thatcher privatised buses, she knew that an entirely private bus service would not be good enough for London. Why was that thought to be good enough for the north-east? We need control over our buses, which is the only way that my constituents and the people of the north-east will get a fair transport deal. As we heard earlier, the North East Joint Transport Committee recently published its bus service improvement plan, setting out a major programme of investment worth £804 million over three years. I want the Minister to tell us that she will be supporting that plan and the buses that my constituents deserve.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend Liz Twist for arranging this important debate.
I live in Northumberland. For those people who mentioned the north and the north-east, Northumberland is something like 15 miles north of Newcastle. It is a rural area, but the south-eastern strip of Northumberland is heavily populated and always forgotten. We have to remind people that we are always left behind. People now expect to be left behind because of where we live. It really is not good enough.
My hon. Friend Chi Onwurah mentioned prices. We live in an area of high social deprivation, where we might get a bus every now and again, and if we are lucky enough to get one we have to pay through the nose. We have just passed the Stagecoach phase; we are on to the deregulated buses if and when stage. I wish we were even somewhere near having a Metro. It is a case of isolation for many people. They cannot get out of the communities in which they live. To travel in my constituency, it is £1.55 for a minor route. To travel seven miles in my constituency from Ashington to Morpeth, it is £6.40. Imagine someone on universal credit or unemployment benefits of around £70 paying £6.40 to get from A to B. There is no cap on it. It is £6.40.
As I mentioned, it is about social isolation. I went through my constituency on a Friday trying to get into different surgeries using public transport. I travelled to North Blyth, Cambois and East Sleekburn, where the first bus service was at 10.14 am. We then travelled from there seven miles—one stop—to the local hospital. It took more than an hour. The return journey for anybody at the hospital, whether they work there or are looking to visit people, must be made before 12.46 pm, because there are no bus services after that. That is outrageous and unacceptable.
I do not have that much time, but this discussion deserves much more debate. I put on the record my thanks, and those of all my colleagues in the northern region, to the key workers and the transport workers, who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic. Many of them were exhausted before the pandemic and still are. We have huge issues, and we need more investment in bus services and integrated transport policy right through the region. We should not forget Northumberland as an area, but we need plenty of investment in the integrated transport plan and regional funding, because buses are a lifeline for many people in our regions.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist on securing this important debate. Considering that more journeys are made on buses than any other form of public transport, we do not really give them much attention in this place. Perhaps it is because those who live and work in London are not aware of their luck in having an inexpensive and reliable bus network, unlike much of the rest of the country.
London successfully resisted the Thatcher Government’s deregulation of buses in 1986, but in the north-east we were not so fortunate. Thanks to the maintenance of regulation, London’s franchised services outperform the rest of the country, with Transport for London and the Mayor setting routes and fares, and therefore ensuring that buses in the capital are run for people, not simply for private profit. Under a regulated system, bus routes are not restricted to narrow, profitable corridors; people are provided with crucial and necessary services, which means that wider benefits are reaped in both social and economic terms.
By connecting people with each other and their schools, workplaces, shops and hospitals, we can build flourishing communities. Ensuring that we make the most of new industries also requires planning for bus service provision. For that joined-up thinking to work, re-regulation is required. Yet for all their talk about giving local authorities and people more power over their lives, the Conservatives have slashed funding for council services that pays for our vital services, such as buses. They have also continued to deny local authorities the powers they need to serve their communities.
In Middlesbrough and across Tees Valley we have, in effect, a duopoly of Stagecoach and Arriva, whose principal purpose and duty is the extraction of profits for their shareholders—ironically, in the case of Arriva, the German state-owned transport company. We are left with the situation where bus passengers in London can pay fares of as little as £1.55 to travel across the city with that money going back into TfL’s coffers, while for those in the north-east and certainly in Middlesbrough, £2 will get you about a mile and a half down the road if you are lucky.
The Tory 2019 manifesto also promised to match the money in the Tees Valley that would otherwise have been received from the EU shared prosperity fund. The reality is that we are losing out to the tune of £900 million, just as we have done over the past decade of Tory rule, as we have received well below the average in transport investment in terms of current and capital spending.
Last year, our region received the lowest amount of transport investment overall. Compared with almost £8 billion spent by the Government on transport in London, the north-east received around one-tenth of the amount, which works out at almost one-third as much per head.
We also have a problem with what Conservative politicians in our region are choosing to spend money on. The decision of the Tees Valley Mayor to purchase Teesside airport initially cost the taxpayer £40 million, but with a £14 million loss last year, it required a further injection of a further £10 million at the taxpayers’ expense.
At the general election, Labour brought forward a comprehensive plan to electrify all buses operating in England at a cost of about £114,000 per bus. A rough estimate of the cost of electrifying the 330 buses operating in the Tees Valley comes to under £38 million. Instead of obsessing about the airport, the Tees Valley Mayor could and should have paid attention to using the powers he has to re-regulate our buses and make them work for passengers and not private profit, and to decarbonising our fleet to improve the air quality of our communities and help us meet our broader climate commitments.
The Government talk a great deal about “taking back control” but that is really about them and corporate entities having control over people’s lives, not about giving power back to the people, as evidenced by the Government undermining Transport for the North. They brag about levelling up, but after 11 years of Tory Government, the reality is that the inequalities in transport provision and the betrayal of the north continue unabated. We see that in the disastrous integrated rail plan and the continuing failure to invest properly in bus services.
Bus services are massively important in my community and I urge the Minister to encourage her Mayor to break away from this failed deregulated system and embrace the success and opportunities that re-regulated and municipal services present to our local economies and communities, and that have been widely embraced in so many developed nations across the world. If we look across the channel, there are endless examples of how that has revitalised communities. I urge the Government to take heed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd; I hope to do justice to the points that have been raised. I congratulate Liz Twist on securing this debate on the provision of bus services in the north-east. It is rather refreshing to hear all the support for buses. As a fellow northerner and a fellow rural MP, I, too, welcome the intensive interest in bus transport. As the Prime Minister set out in his 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, buses—
I am very grateful. The Minister is applauding the interest in bus service provision in the north-east of England. It will not have escaped her attention that the Opposition Benches are full of Labour MPs from the north-east, but there is no one on the Government Benches. How is that a commitment to transport in the north-east of England?
Let me talk about the commitment from this Government. Connecting people every day to jobs, studies and vital local services is absolutely why we value buses. The benefits are clear. They are at the very centre of our public transport system, and in 2019-20 there were more than twice as many passenger journeys by bus as by rail.
Covid-19 has had a huge impact here, as it has elsewhere, and the Government have provided an unprecedented amount of support for the bus sector, which the hon. Member for Blaydon referred to. Through the pandemic, more than £1.5 billion has been announced to date. That has been essential to keep bus services running and to get workers to jobs, children to schools and people to vital services. Without that support, bus services would have operated at a loss or would have stopped running entirely.
But we do not just want to go back to how bus services were before covid. There are huge opportunities to change the way that bus services operate and we want to make them better. That is why the commitment to buses is evident in the already mentioned “Bus Back Better” national bus strategy, which was published in March this year. It explains how we will see these services being more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper. The point about comparing and contrasting London prices with those elsewhere in the country has been made many times.
Our central aim is to get more people travelling by bus—to not just get patronage back, but increase it—but we will achieve that only if we can make the bus a practical and attractive alternative to the car for many people.
The Minister mentioned a number of issues, but one of the real problems is affordability. Opposition Members have mentioned this twice: it costs £6.40 to travel seven miles in my constituency, but travel in the capital is capped at £4.65 a day. The Minister is from the north. When she considers levelling up, she should do what is right for her constituents and mine and ensure that it is affordable for people to use public transport. Affordability is so important.
I do not need to be told that; I am quite aware of it. That is why the “Bus Back Better” strategy will look at how we make those fares cheaper and how we will adopt the London-style approach to fares across all parts of the country, but particularly in the north, which I also represent, as the hon. Member said.
The key thing is this: we share those objectives to try to improve buses—that is good for everyone—but we need the financial commitment to be able to do that, both to tackle the problems that we face locally and for investment in the improvement plans.
Thank you, Mr Dowd. Hopefully, I can set the hon. Member’s mind at rest. There are already examples of great bus services across England, where we have really seen passenger growth, with local authorities and bus operators working together to put passengers first, which is critical. Strong local plans are being delivered through enhanced partnerships between authorities and bus operators or franchising arrangements; those are crucial to achieving the goals that we have set out in the strategy. All local transport authorities in England, including the North East Joint Transport Committee, have confirmed that they will pursue one of these approaches—as the strategy asks. They have all published bus service improvement plans, setting out how the goals of our strategy can be delivered in their local areas and be driven by what passengers—and would-be passengers—want.
We set out in our guidance on bus service improvement plans our high expectations of what those plans should include. We have heard what priorities Members from across the House would want to see, as well—it is tackling congestion; it is speeding up services; it is reducing fares; it is simplifying ticketing, and it is decarbonising bus fleets. At the Budget we announced £1.2 billion of dedicated funding for bus transformation deals, which is part of an over £3 billion fund of new spend on buses over this Parliament. This level of investment represents more than a doubling of dedicated bus funding when compared with the previous Parliament. The hon. Member for Blaydon asked for clarity on the funding allocation; we shall be announcing more details on how that funding will be announced very shortly. She also asked for a meeting with the Minister responsible, Baroness Vere, in the other place. The Baroness would be delighted to confirm that meeting between Nexus, Transport North East and herself.
The spending review and the Budget also confirmed that the Government will be investing £5.7 billion in the transport networks of eight city regions in England, including in the north-east, through the city region sustainable transport settlements. It represents an unprecedented investment in the local transport networks, and will play a key role in driving forward the country’s national infrastructure strategy, as well as delivering transformational socioeconomic and environmental change in those areas. The north-east will be able to submit a programme of schemes that it intends to fund using its prospective settlement, which could include improvements to bus provision. The Government look forward to working with the region to unlock and deliver the many transport benefits that the CRSTS will provide.
The new funding comes on top of the support that Government already provide for buses. Each year, the Government provide £250 million in direct revenue support for bus services in England, via the bus service operators grant. Without that support, fares would increase and marginal services would disappear. Around £43 million of the bus service operators grant is paid directly to local authorities, rather than bus operators, to support socially necessary bus services in their area that are not commercially viable. The funding also supports the approximately £1 billion spent by local authorities on concessionary bus passes every year. The Government are committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to around 9 million older and disabled people, allowing free off-peak local travel anywhere in England.
The national bus strategy is the biggest shake-up of the industry in a generation. It sets out what we want for passengers and how we will achieve it. I am sure that everybody would agree that only by working together can we provide the bus services that people want and need. The hon. Member for Blaydon asked a question on driver shortages; I wanted to reassure her that we now have a further 50,000 test slots annually, thanks to the changes that the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency have recently made.
There is, of course, our commitment to 4,000 zero-emission buses, which was set out by the Prime Minister and is very much part of the Department for Transport’s transport decarbonisation plan. It was raised that nobody has seen these buses; well, I certainly have. I have had the joy of riding on those buses during COP26—both hydrogen and battery-electric. I have also had the pleasure of visiting Wrightbus, near Ballymena in Northern Ireland, to see the buses being manufactured.
I, too, have seen the buses when they were parked in Westminster for a show and tell by the manufacturers. What I have not seen is the buses on the streets of Newcastle.
I am sure that the hon. Member will look forward to taking a ride on one of those buses. I certainly found them to be smooth and they provide a far more enjoyable driver experience; and it is not just about the drivers, but the pedestrians and the people who live in the communities where the bus routes run.
I am proud of what the Government are doing on the decarbonisation agenda. I welcome the support for buses generally, and I hope that Members across the House will join me in encouraging increased patronage of bus services. I again thank the hon. Member for Blaydon for calling the debate and for the passion that has been displayed throughout.
I have the luxury of a whole five minutes to wind up.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for their speeches and interventions. As the Minister said, they have clearly demonstrated the passion that there is for good bus services, which are essential to keep our communities going, and they gave examples of difficulties in their particular areas.
I welcome the opportunity to meet Baroness Vere to discuss the issues that we are facing in the north-east, in particular with Nexus. I look forward to that meeting taking place quickly because this issue is hugely important and very urgent, so I hope that we will be able to follow up on that very quickly. I hope that we will be able to persuade Baroness Vere that we need the additional support that I talked about for our Metro system, and to prevent our bus services being drastically cut; they are absolutely essential.
I raised the question of our aspiration through the bus service improvement plan. Certainly, people in Transport North East are very keen and have the support of the community to pursue that improvement plan, but it takes money. I am concerned about the fact that there is only £1.2 billion.
As the Minister was speaking, I was looking at the bus service strategy, about which there has been much discussion. Within the bus strategy, there is the commitment made in February 2020 by the Prime Minister to £3 billion of expenditure for buses in England. Other measures mentioned include
“£300m of funding to support the sector recover from the pandemic,”
£25 million for skills, bus priority schemes and
“accelerating the delivery of zero emission buses with £120m in 2021/22.”
That seems to me to not quite add up to £3 billion, when the £1.2 billion is added.
The strategy says:
“The bulk of the £3bn transformation funding will be paid after the transformational changes begin in April 2022.”
So, I would be interested to know exactly what has happened to the gap between the £3 billion that was promised and the £1.2 billion that is still available for the transformational change that we need.
As I say, I look forward to the meeting. Some of our transport operators are looking at better, more environmentally friendly buses and electric vehicles, and those are hugely expensive. I look forward to the meeting and I very much hope that we can get a positive outcome for the Nexus funding crisis and for our bus service improvement plan.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered provision of bus services in the North East.