Bus Service Improvement Plans: North-west England — [Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 9th March 2022.

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Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North 9:30 am, 9th March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered funding for bus service improvement plans in the North West.

Thank you for chairing the debate, Ms Nokes.

In Warrington, we are proud of our municipal bus company. It provides connections between our homes and communities, between jobs and opportunities, between healthcare facilities and between our friends and families. For those without cars, like me and thousands of my constituents, buses are essential, and good, reliable bus services are a huge part of the wider picture of reducing carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil.

Because millions of people across this country rely on buses—they cannot just hop into a car if services are slashed—and they cannot find extra cash if fares rise, bus cuts mean being cut off. Deregulation and a decade of Tory decline have meant that more than 3,000 bus routes and more than 350,000 passenger journeys have been lost. The majority of short trips, under 5 km, are made by car. As a result, our region has a significant air pollution issue. In the Liverpool city region alone, more than 1,000 deaths a year are linked to that silent killer. On public transport, 80% of journeys are taken by bus, yet bus fares have risen by 40% and routes have been mercilessly cut nationally. The millions of people who use buses and the communities who depend on them have been ignored for far too long.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend for opening such a vital debate. One route in my patch that has been or is about to be decommissioned is the No. 62 from Runcorn to her patch, Warrington. That just shows that reregulation is vital. I hope that the judicial review today comes out on the side of those who want to give regulation teeth.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention. As he says, services being cut means communities being cut off from one another. The millions of people who use buses and the communities who depend on them have been ignored for far too long. They have been an afterthought in decisions made far away in Westminster by politicians who have no understanding of them. The shockingly bad services left behind have made public transport increasingly unviable. In Warrington over the last decade, almost 50% of services have been cut. That is absolutely appalling. It means that people in our community—in particular, elderly residents who do not drive—are completely cut off from other parts of the town.

Just a year ago, the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary launched the “Bus Back Better” strategy and they pledged to provide a great bus service for everyone everywhere. They promised that it would be one of the great acts of levelling up. This was the ambition: £3 billion of transformation funding was supposed to level up buses across England towards London standards, with main road services in towns and cities to run so often that people would not even need a timetable, and better services in the evenings and at weekends; and to provide simple, cheap flat fares that people could pay with a contactless card, and daily and weekly price capping across operators and rail and trams, too.

In Warrington, our Labour-run council has shown real ambition with a plan to increase bus use by between 5% and 15% through excellent council working with partners to make buses more frequent, faster, reliable, cheaper, easier to use and better integrated. This is a local community backing buses.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I want to make a plug if I may, Ms Nokes. Charlotte Nichols may be well aware of the advances being made in top-of-the-range buses—for instance, Wrightbus buses in Northern Ireland—hydrogen buses, and the technology that is in use there to make bus travel more environmentally friendly and more environmentally effective. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to invest in a reliable, frequent bus service like that in order to get people to forgo car journeys in the knowledge that they will get to their destination in time? Hydrogen buses are the buses of the future; they are not hampered by breakdowns.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and absolutely agree that greening our transport infrastructure is a really important part both of meeting our climate objectives as a country and of ensuring that people have good-quality services they can rely on. I am proud of the fact that in Warrington we have bid to become one of the country’s first all-electric bus towns. Hydrogen for transport also has a really important part to play. With a lot of hydrogen production taking place across the north-west and in the Liverpool city region in particular, it is something that we are very excited about locally. I know that hydrogen trains are being manufactured in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury. We are excited to be leading in the north-west and hope this can be rolled out more widely.

As we await the funding announcement in full, it looks as though Warrington will be one of the lucky places to receive this investment from the Government. Across the length and breadth of the country, particularly in the north-west, many are counting the cost of broken promises, because for all the rhetoric about levelling up, the small print reveals that “Bus Back Better” is in tatters. A letter sent to local transport authority directors by the Department for Transport on 11 January makes it clear that the budget for the transformation of buses—a pot from which local regions can bid for funds—has shrunk from £3 billion to £1.2 billion for the next three years.

The letter that let the cat out of the bag says:

“Prioritisation is inevitable, given the scale of ambition across the country greatly exceeds the amount.”

We know that bids for almost £8 billion have been submitted by local transport authorities, representing a blueprint for transformation up and down the country, but the levelling-up White Paper confirms that communities will see a fraction of that. Despite that, last month the Secretary of State said it was “absolutely incorrect” to say that funding to transform services has been slashed. One of his most senior colleagues, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, directly contradicted him. In a letter he said:

“Funding specifically pledged for transformation has been substantially reduced.”

He concluded that he is “gravely concerned” that, far from seeing transformation, many areas face losing their services altogether.

I mentioned the 50% loss of passenger numbers in Warrington. With the price of labour and fuel currently extremely high, it will be difficult for operators to hold down fares and for routes to continue, particularly those that serve more deprived areas where the profit margins are smaller.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing today’s debate. May I give an example of the daily commute of one of my constituents? They get on at Farnworth train station to go to Moses Gate. They get off and take the 521 bus, operated by Vision Bus, for about 20 minutes. They then walk 10 minutes to Ladywood School in Little Lever to drop off their child. To get back into Bolton town centre in time for work, they walk 15 minutes to the bus stop and jump on the 524, operated by Diamond Bus, which takes 25 minutes. Quite often, the buses do not turn up or they are cancelled. People end up being late for work and some have even lost their jobs. Does my hon. Friend recognise that that is a concerning situation for many people in our region?

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I could not agree more, particularly when we look at the deregulation of bus services, with operators in some regions scrabbling for the same fares and most affordable routes rather than what best serves their community, so we end up with a mismatch of multiple operators running the same route.

The Manchester Oxford Road corridor is the busiest bus corridor in Europe, yet people a mile away are left without bus services to get into Manchester city centre. For towns and cities that have multiple operators, it is an even bigger issue. When I lived in Salford, for example, the franchise changed from First to Stagecoach on part of my route. Overnight, my monthly bus pass trebled in cost, because I could no longer buy a First-only bus pass. Because I had to change from First on to Stagecoach, I had to buy one of the much more expensive multi-operator passes. That is an issue across our region. I am glad that the Labour metro Mayors for the Liverpool city region and for the Greater Manchester region are looking to address that within their combined authorities.

From Greater Manchester to Lancaster, places bypassed by good public transport for far too long have been demanding real change. They put forward an ambitious blueprint to use buses to connect people to jobs, families and opportunities, and tackle the climate crisis in the process. Despite the challenges, they have plans to completely overhaul and reregulate the bus network as part of the bus service improvement plan. It was supposed to be about improved accessibility across the network, including level access from train to platform, and it is part of the work that is beginning on networks of cycling and walking routes across our region.

Labour leaders in power in towns and cities nationwide have real ambition to reverse the decline that we have seen under the Tories. We want a London-style system and to make buses quicker, cheaper, greener and more reliable, but we need a Government whose ambition matches our own. It is now becoming clear that, far from matching the ambition of our communities, Ministers have pulled the rug out from underneath them. Will the Minister now own up and admit what the Transport Secretary will not: that many areas will now not see a single penny of the transformation funding? Will she today detail exactly how much local transport authorities are set to see in transformation funding, and come clean that there will be areas in the north-west that will miss out altogether?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy) 9:40 am, 9th March 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlotte Nichols on securing this important debate on funding—or the lack thereof, as we have heard—and on her excellent introduction. As on many other subjects, she is an excellent advocate for her constituents.

I have spoken before about how the proportion of people in Ellesmere Port and Neston who use private motor transport to get to work is much higher than the national average. Perhaps we should not be surprised about that—we build cars in the constituency, and have done for many years—but I believe it is more a reflection of the poor public transport links that we have in the constituency. The threat to bus services and changes to bus routes are common issues that have come up on many occasions since I was elected. The subject is raised regularly with me by constituents, particularly elderly constituents who rely on public transport to get around, and of course those who travel by bus for work or for education.

The situation is a challenge across the whole constituency, but particularly in the Parkgate and Neston areas. On top of existing services being inadequate to meet my constituents’ needs, it is fair to say that over at least the last decade, there has been a battle to save a service probably once every couple of months. We have not even begun to think about what will happen because of the increase in fuel costs over the last few months—indeed, they spiked over the weekend as well.

Sometimes when facing such threats, we have managed to persuade the bus company to keep the route open. Sometimes the service is retained but rerouted, usually to maximise profit rather than convenience for customers, and sometimes we lose the route altogether. When that happens, it has a huge impact on the people who rely on the services to get to school, get to work, and access medical appointments or other public services.

A current example is the proposal by the Cheshire police and crime commissioner to close Ellesmere Port police station to the public. He proposes that those who need to speak to an officer in person will be able to go to Blacon in Chester. When I asked him how those who do not have a car will be able to get there, answer came there none. There is no direct bus route to Blacon from Ellesmere Port—again showing the lack of strategy and of thinking through the consequences of decisions of that nature.

I shall outline a few examples of how my constituents have been affected over the years by changes to bus services to highlight the really inadequate state of affairs at the moment. About four or five years ago, the No. 7 bus service, which catered for a number of retirement bungalows and people with no other option than to get a bus, was rerouted due to parking issues and the Saturday service was removed altogether. The council intervened but could only negotiate an arrangement to keep the Saturday service for 10 months. Unfortunately, the impact of losing a rural bus grant unfortunately was that we the service was not retained thereafter.

In 2019, Stagecoach, one of the main operators in my area, carried out a consultation regarding changes that it was proposing to services, which it sold as meaning better co-ordination and frequency of buses travelling through the constituency between Chester and Liverpool, as well as a Sunday service via Overpool, and more buses for the Hope Farm estate. What resulted, however, was that the 22 bus service, which was a vital route for my constituents in Neston and Parkgate to attend Arrowe Park Hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood, was removed altogether due to low passenger numbers. Stagecoach proposed that customers use a different bus service, but the reality of that, one constituent told me, was having to catch three buses, taking more than an hour, just to attend a hospital appointment. That is not the better co-ordination of bus services that was being sold at the start of the consultation.

The proposed changes also left the Groves estate without any bus service at all along Chester Road between the Strawberry Roundabout and the Whitby High School, leaving a number of elderly constituents who use the bus service to get to the town centre and Ellesmere Port Hospital with a lengthy walk just to get to the nearest bus stop. One constituent told me:

“I will be 88 next month and like my friends and neighbours want to remain independent in my own home, but this lack of public transport is not helping”.

That brings home to me just how vital a proper co-ordinated bus service is.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East

On funding, in Bolton we need £30 million, otherwise one third of all buses will be cut. That will impact my constituency massively. Proper funding is so important. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Yes, I agree. At the heart of this, clearly, is a bus service that has been under-resourced for many years. There are two problems: lack of support for operators and lack of strategy, so we keep facing chopping and changing decisions based on commercial considerations that do not necessarily serve the communities. The example of the bus service I have just mentioned means that someone who wants to get to the hospital, even though if it is only a mile from their home, must now take two buses. It is too far for them to walk.

What was also clear from the process was that the consultations were not adequate. Numerous comments were lodged by constituents, but they seemed to make no difference to the results. As I set out, the 22 bus service was not even mentioned as under threat during the consultation. It is hard for people to argue to retain a service when they are not aware that it is threatened. Greater transparency is needed from service providers when they enter such consultations.

The last local change to mention was that, last year, the route of the No. 5, which is an hourly service between Mold and Ellesmere Port calling at Cheshire Oaks—a major employer in the area—was altered, leaving the Stanney Grange estate with reduced access. One constituent who contacted me was distressed about the impact that that would have on her learning-disabled son, who relied on the bus service to get out and about. When we made inquiries, we were advised that Stagecoach had served notice and it intended to reprocure the route and consider costs. Arriva received the contract on a temporary basis and, when there was a further reprocurement, it got an alternative timetable as part of the bid. Some of the routes were retained, but many roads previously served no longer are. Unfortunately, again, constituents lose out.

Those are examples of not only a lack of resources, but a lack of joined-up thinking and strategy on what bus services are for. They are for serving our communities and, clearly, this constant chopping and changing, reducing routes and leaving areas out altogether does not benefit our constituents at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North said, 10 years of cuts have left bus coverage at its lowest level in decades. Since 2010, more than 3,000 bus routes and more than 350,000 passenger journeys have been lost, leaving people cut off from friends, family, work and education opportunities, and other public services.

It seems to me that the Prime Minister has no intention of keeping his promise of

“great bus services to everyone, everywhere”,

because, as my hon. Friend said, hidden away in the levelling-up plan is a massive cut to bus funding of £1.8 billion. Figures show that the cost of funding bids submitted by 53 out of 79 local authorities totals more than £7 billion, so it is clear that many areas will miss out. With this Government’s record of picking and choosing winners and losers, I have little confidence that my constituency will benefit from that funding at all.

I am sick of my area missing out on funding for improvements to the community, bus services and other local infrastructure. If we have ambition for the country, it should be for the whole country. We need real ambition; we do not need any more empty promises. We want a real say in the way services are run. We do not want to keep putting in bids for pots of money and then being left at the whim of commercial operators. We want control of our bus services and we want resources to be able to deliver them properly for the benefit of our communities.

Labour leaders in power in cities and towns across the country have the ambition to reverse the decline we have seen over the last decade. We want a London-style system that is run in the public interest, to make buses quicker, cheaper and more reliable for our communities. When I was first elected to this place, I was amazed that I could stand at my local bus stop and wait only a matter of minutes for a bus to turn up, and that I was paying £1.60. I could not get anywhere on a bus in Ellesmere Port for £1.60, never mind across half the city, which is what we can do here in London. It is chalk and cheese. The whole country should have that level of service. It is an ambition that is right for our country, and it is what I want for my community. It is what we deserve, because bus services are a vital part of our community.

How can we level up if we cannot get anywhere on a bus after 6 o’clock at night? How can we level up if bus services are removed at a moment’s notice by operators, without any regard to the effect that will have on the communities they are supposed to serve? How can we level up if we have no power or resources to direct where and when buses go? Let us get on with some delivery. Let us take back control of our buses and serve our communities the way that we want them to be served.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

I remind Members that if they wish to contribute, they are meant to bob up and down. I call Margaret Greenwood.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West 9:51 am, 9th March 2022

Thank you, Ms Nokes. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning.

Since the Conservatives deregulated buses outside of London in the 1980s, services have suffered. That has been felt on Merseyside where, under the current operating model, private bus companies set routes, ticket prices and timetables. It is a system designed around profit, not passengers, in which services can be withdrawn at short notice if they are not profitable enough.

A report last year by the academic Philip Alston, the former United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, found that the deregulation of buses has

“provided a master class in how not to run an essential public service”,

leaving residents at the mercy of private actors who have total discretion over how to run a bus route or whether to run one at all. That is the Conservative legacy on buses. Since 2010, more than 200 bus services have been lost across the Liverpool city region—a shocking statistic.

A number of my constituents in Wirral West have been in touch with me in recent months about a reduction in the service of the No. 71 bus, which runs from Heswall to Liverpool via Irby. I know from that correspondence just how important these services are to local people. Lost and reduced services can impact on people who need to get to work, to hospital appointments, to school or college or to meet friends.

Public transport is immensely important if we are to tackle climate change and the issue of air quality. It is important that we encourage people to use it, and that will happen only if services are reliable and affordable.

Thanks to the hard work of Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram and local leaders, services in the Liverpool city region are on the way to being publicly controlled again. Last week, members of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority signed off on proposals for a franchising system to be the preferred method of running bus services. That will bring the system back under local control, allowing the combined authority to specify the network, control fare policy and drastically improve ticketing. I echo the words of Mayor Rotheram, who described the move as “momentous”. He has long advocated a London-style transport system across Merseyside, which is nothing short of what local people deserve.

Transport authorities in the north-west and across the country are waiting to learn their funding allocations for their bus service improvement plans. The Government have said they will announce details on how the funding will be allocated in due course. Authorities have been waiting since October to find out their individual allocations and need to know as soon as possible how much they are getting so that they can put their plans into action.

Analysis by the Confederation of Passenger Transport has suggested that more than £7 billion will be needed to fully deliver the measures that local transport authorities have included in their bus service improvement plans. The Government have set aside £1.2 billion for the plans, creating a huge funding gap between what local authorities want to deliver and the funding that the Government are making available.

Liverpool City Region Combined Authority has asked for £667 million from the Government for its bus service improvement plan. At the heart of the plan are measures to improve affordability, reliability and the environmental impacts of bus services.

The Campaign for Better Transport has said:

“It is doubtful that the current funding available will be sufficient…to achieve real transformation in ambitious authorities.”

When the Minister responds, can she tell us whether she agrees? Will she guarantee that the Government will come forward with the funds that we so desperately need for public transport systems, to make them affordable, reliable, and ensure that they meet the needs of passengers?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Does my hon. Friend concur that the regulation, which Steve Rotheram and the leaders have announced, is mightily vital, but it does need those resources for a first-class affordable public transport system in our patch?

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is as if he had read the last line of my speech. It is absolutely vital that local authorities get the funding that they need, so that constituents like mine, and those of Weaver Vale, can benefit.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Shadow Minister (Transport) 9:55 am, 9th March 2022

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Ms Nokes. We seem to be getting through the debate rather quickly this morning, which means that I can read my whole speech. I am sure you will enjoy it.

I start by thanking my hon. Friends who made the effort to come here this morning to speak on this issue, which is so important—not just to us as MPs but, more importantly, to our constituents. It will, I believe, define the outcome at many seats at the next election; it is that important to many constituents.

I thank my hon. Friend Charlotte Nichols for securing this debate, at a time when bus services across the country are at such a risk from the Government’s over-egged promises, which many constituents, I am afraid, feel have been broken. I also particularly thank my hon. Friend Justin Madders, who mentioned that it has been months since the Prime Minister launched the centrepiece of his levelling-up agenda, the national bus strategy—trumpeting from the hilltops his love for buses and how “Bus Back Better” would address the vast disparities between services in London and the rest of the country.

My hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood explained the paucity of funding—I will touch on that later—and how desperately that will affect her constituents. My hon. Friend Mike Amesbury explained his almost annual campaigning efforts to save bus routes. I think, unfortunately, he must run those campaigns again this year.

My hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi mentioned the struggles of her constituents over the affordability of fares, and the routes that do not actually meet the needs of local residents. Of course, I also thank Jim Shannon for his contribution; buses are an important issue in Northern Ireland as well.

Less than a year on, I am genuinely disappointed about the Government’s ambition. It was limited from the outset but has declined even further now, to a point where funding can only realistically satisfy the ambitions of just two transport authorities. There is such a vast gap between the amount of money bid for and what is available that many parts of the country will be bitterly disappointed that their ambitions are not being met.

Let us be clear: prior to the pandemic, more journeys were made on buses than on any other form of public transport—almost 4.5 billion journeys. However, after 12 years of Conservative cuts, the loss of 134 million miles of bus lanes and an inadequate statutory framework, vital transport links have been left to decay. Bus coverage is now the lowest it has been in decades. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the Campaign to Protect Rural England now uses the term “transport deserts” to describe many rural communities.

It is mostly Labour MPs who have turned up today. However, when I talk to colleagues from other parts of the country, they are equally concerned, whether they be Conservative MPs from Cornwall or parts of the home counties. They are also suffering from those transport deserts. Austerity has seen the Government slash public subsidies for buses, with more than 3,000 bus routes cut across the country, leading to passenger numbers slumping by 10%, while fares have increased, in some places, by as much as 32%—well above even the rapidly-increasing rate of inflation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West mentioned, underfunding over such a long period by the Government has become so severe that in his report into the privatisation of the bus sector, the former UN special rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, highlighted a broken and fragmented system, with skyrocketing fares, plummeting service standards and disappearing routes, which often deprived bus users of an essential public service.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that funding for bus services is essential to improve our economy? We have such disparity of income and grotesque levels of inequality in the country. Unless we do something about bus services, those people who are currently left behind will be even further left behind, as it is harder for them to secure and to keep jobs.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Shadow Minister (Transport)

I absolutely agree. A proper, fully funded, affordable and accessible bus network that can get people to college, university and jobs is a vital part of rebuilding our economy and of any serious levelling-up agenda for any part of the country. The cost of having an electric vehicle and of fuel—I paid £1.81 for a litre of petrol last week, which was pretty eye-watering—means that many ordinary people will have to rely more on public transport than they do at the moment. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East

On the issue of affordability, I know this does not happen in London, but in my constituency there may be two sets of bus providers on the same route, with one charging a much higher fare than the other. Constituents ask me why they are paying one set of fares in the morning and a different one in the evening.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that really good point. I have travelled to parts of the country, including Bolton, and have seen the disparity in fares at different times of the day, having been told to pay £6.50 for a single bus fare. It is no wonder that people are thinking, “I might as well take an Uber rather than get on public transport.”

An issue we have in this country, clearly pointed out in the UN special rapporteur’s report, is that deregulation has led to disastrous disparity in the type of service provided and network across the country. That is why I am hoping for positive news today. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, who has been battling for the right to franchise buses in Greater Manchester, is taking the right approach. Although there are some benefits to enhanced partnerships, the reality is that with more direct public control, services can be directed not at the behest of what is commercially viable but at what is economically viable for constituents to get to jobs and colleges. That is something that we all have to reflect hard on as we move forward with the Government’s programme. I hope that Andy Burnham gets a successful result.

Philip Alston’s report also suggested that the UK has failed its human rights obligations by allowing this essential service to deteriorate. The right to physical accessibility, which is the bedrock of many economic, social, civil and political rights is, for many, contingent on access to reliable and affordable public transport. Let us be clear: the deterioration of essential bus networks is not just a transport issue—it is a human rights issue, be it for older citizens, pensioners or people with disabilities unable to use other types of public transport. Buses can be made accessible. It is shameful that we have been singled out globally for such a terrible state of affairs when it comes to our bus network.

Research by the Common Wealth think-tank found that since bus services were deregulated, the real cost of bus and coach fares has risen by 102%. That speaks to the point a number of Members made, and is just unbelievable. Our service standards have dropped off a cliff, which coincides with a dramatic reduction in Government spending on local transport, which has fallen by more than £900 million since 2010. That is nearly £1 billion since 2010. That has clearly been exacerbated by the pandemic—industry revenue has fallen by £250 million, as people stayed at home and did not use public transport.

Now more than ever, bus services need to be bolstered in areas such as the north-west of England. The national bus strategy was an opportune moment for this Government to right the many wrongs since Thatcher privatised the network in the first place. Sadly, the Prime Minister promised just £3 billion of spending to level up buses across England towards London standards. I repeat the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston: as a London MP paying £1.50 fares, I find it astonishing when I go to other parts of the country and see people pay as much as an hour’s wage for an average worker to have one or two bus tickets. It seems unbelievable that people in many parts of the country have to spend their first hour’s wages just to get to work.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s strategy offered nothing to those who were looking for the bold vision that had been promised to reverse the millions of miles of lost bus routes across the country. It was a huge missed opportunity to revolutionise the bus industry and ensure that funds were properly directed to deliver the transition to electric and low emission vehicles that had been promised. We are still waiting for the vast majority of the 4,000 EV, hydrogen and other low and zero emission buses that have been promised. I have spoken to bus manufacturers, and those buses are still not on order.

Another frustration is the fact that the Government are already backtracking on their meagre promises. Leaked documents recently made clear that the budget for the transformation of buses—a pot from which local regions can bid for funds—has now shrunk to just £1.4 billion for the next three years. Sadly, that means cuts are inevitable, with the Department for Transport stating that

“the scale of ambition across the country greatly exceeds the amount”.

This was an opportunity to transform our bus networks for what is not a huge of sum of money, compared with the amount that would be needed for rail projects or aviation. It is scandalous that this money has not been made available and that that promise is now not going to be met.

Figures compiled by colleagues in the shadow Transport team revealed that the total amount in the funding bids made to the extra funding pot by 53 out of 79 local transport authorities—approximately 80% of all bids—adds up to almost £7.5 billion, so they are going to have to fight for the scraps of the £1.4 billion in that funding pot. This indicates that the total amount in the submissions is almost certainly in excess of £9 billion and that the Government are putting forward far too little funding. It is really only a sticking plaster or it could perhaps fund a more transformative programme in one or two parts of the country, while the rest have to stagger on with some of the awful services described by my colleagues today.

As I have said before in this House, the reality is that the Tories promised transformational investment in bus services but in fact millions of passengers have instead seen managed decline. They have dramatically downgraded the ambitions of many local communities, with bus services being slashed nationwide. This is proof that the Government simply will not and cannot deliver for the people who need it most.

As many of my hon. Friends have alluded to, Labour would be far more ambitious in the scale of its plans for buses and many of our metro Mayors are leading the way in doing that. They have empowered and delivered for people right across the country, including in Greater Manchester where Andy Burnham has seized the powers afforded to him in the Bus Services Act 2017 to ensure that a municipal service, or the best that he can achieve under franchising processes, will be in place by 2024.

Labour-run Nottingham City Council has shown what can be done if the right approach is adopted. Indeed, in Nottingham the city’s bus company, founded as a completely council-owned company in 1986, has won UK bus operator of the year five times and has remarkable satisfaction ratings. Last year, Nottingham City Transport won an environmental improvement award for reducing the emissions from its fleet of buses by 90% after a £42 million investment in low emission vehicles.

There are more plans in the combined authorities in the west midlands, the west of England, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Liverpool and the North of Tyne, to name just a few Labour administrations that have ambitious plans to revolutionise bus services. The same is the case in the north-west, and that ambition could be backed by the Government if they chose to do so.

As many colleagues have pointed out, Labour have leaders in power in towns and cities nationwide who have real ambition to reverse the decline. With more than 3,000 services slashed, fares rocketing and passenger numbers down, action needs to be taken and Labour leaders are beginning to take that action where the Government are lacking.

We need a bus service fit for the climate crisis that creates good-quality, reliable jobs across communities that are victims of rural poverty. This is exactly the radical offer on buses that towns and cities across the country so desperately need as we attempt to grow our way out of an economic crisis.

The research that I mentioned before revealed that the true figure for what is required by local authorities to enable them to deliver their bus transformation plans is around £9 billion, six times what is currently on offer by the Government. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has submitted a bid for £630 million to help improve services across the region and to enable it to deliver its bus service improvement plan up to 2025, including its drive to create the Bee Network, which is an integrated London-style transport system that would join together buses, trams, cycling, walking and other shared-mobility services, making public transport more efficient and, hopefully, much cheaper.

Andy Burnham has led the way on that bus transformation in recent years as the first metro Mayor to use those powers set out in the Bus Services Act 2017. That ambition risks being undermined because of the lack of Government investment. Greater Manchester’s own request for £630 million of bus service improvement plan funding would be almost half of the Government’s allocation for the whole country. It demonstrates how inadequate the current amount is and how empty the “Bus Back Better” slogan is. That is why Andy, alongside seven other metro Mayors, including the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, wrote to the Transport Secretary and the Chancellor last month to jointly express their grave concerns about the downgrading to just £1.4 billion of what was originally earmarked for transforming bus services. Quite clearly, the new figure means many areas will now receive no funding at all and almost every region will fail to receive exactly what they have requested.

I finish by urging the Minister to provide assurances to all present that the ambitions of local authorities across the country, including the north-west, to improve bus services will be met by this Government. At present, there are very real fears based on the meagre £1.4 billion that is being proposed that this will be a missed opportunity to level up services once and for all and give our bus services the transformation they need to take us forward over the next 100 years.

Without that long-term investment, there is a real risk that communities will face the prospect of losing their bus services, which would have a detrimental impact on economic prosperity as we attempt to grow our way out of the pandemic. Until the Government match the ambition of local transport authorities, their levelling-up agenda will unfortunately be like the buses we too often have in these places: we wait for them to come, but they do not arrive.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:11 am, 9th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to hear the appreciation of and ambition for buses and public services, particularly in the north-west, which, as I am sure Charlotte Nichols understands, is my home region as well.

Like Justin Madders, I too was pleasantly surprised when arriving in London at the complete contrast to my area of West Cumbria in the provision, regularity and ease of payment of bus services in London. That is absolutely what we want to see being rolled out across the country. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North on securing the debate and discussing in depth why we value buses. It is, of course, because buses are the foundation of our public transport network and an efficient bus sector is key to levelling up the country.

It is a shame that Jim Shannon is no longer in his place. He mentioned bus manufacturing in Northern Ireland. I had the joy of visiting Wrightbus a few months ago. I went to Ballymena to see the factory. That is just one example of how bus manufacturing is also levelling up the UK. Buses provide access to employment, apprenticeships, training opportunities, leisure, education and crucial connections between friends and family, especially in the more deprived areas where fewer people have access to a car.

We know that covid-19 has knocked people’s confidence to travel on public transport. The patronage of public transport has dropped, and I want to work with hon. Members across the House to increase that patronage, because that is the most important aspect. Others are not travelling at all due to the shift to working from home, which adds to the difficulties that public transport operators now face. We have seen demand reduce to well below pre-pandemic levels. The Government have supported the bus and light rail sector since March 2020 to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic through a variety of emergency and recovery grants, totalling almost £2 billion. We are absolutely committed to supporting bus services, and our spending reflects that.

I have heard reference throughout the debate to the £3 billion of new funding. I will go into detail about exactly how that funding is being spent. It is new funding for buses over the course of this Parliament. It includes £1.2 billion for transformational bus service improvements, more than £500 million for zero-emission buses and more than £500 million for the city region sustainable transport settlements that will directly fund bus infrastructure.

Let me provide some detail on how various funds are improving the bus network in the north-west. First, I am delighted at Warrington’s commitment to transform its entire fleet. Some 120 battery-electric buses will be gracing the streets of Warrington over the next few months. That is brilliant. Through the ultra-low emission bus scheme in Greater Manchester, over £6.9 million will provide 32 electric buses, including the crucial charging infrastructure. In Liverpool city region, the low emission bus scheme is contributing more than £4.9 million, which will bring 12 electric buses, including the charging infrastructure, and 60 hybrid buses.

In the Liverpool city region, the transforming cities fund will award a total of £172.5 million, which will bring 20 hydrogen buses. In Greater Manchester, which we have heard much about today, the city region sustainable transport settlement will contribute over £1 billion. The detail of the final settlement and actual programme is yet to be agreed, but there is over £710 million for Liverpool. In Blackpool, the ZEBRA—zero emission bus regional areas—scheme will contribute to the roll-out of zero-emissions buses, and similarly in Liverpool and Greater Manchester.

We are committed not only to the provision of buses, but also to helping people find out about services, improving the way that they pay and helping them have confidence in the reliability of the service. Most importantly, this is about how we transition from a fossil-fuelled economy to a decarbonised transport system using clean buses—hydrogen, hybrid or battery-electric.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

The Minister is giving us lots of detail on Government funding but, as I mentioned, analysis by the Confederation of Passenger Transport suggested that over £7 billion was needed to deliver the measures that local transport authorities have included in bus service improvement plans. The Government have set out a fraction of that—£1.2 billion. What can the Minister do to secure more money for the bus services that we so desperately need?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. Over this Parliament there will be over £3 billion of new funding for buses. We are doubling dedicated bus funding from spending review ’21 compared with spending review ’15. It is made up of £1.2 billion of new funding for bus transformation deals to deliver those London-style services that we keep talking about, with the infrastructure and the service improvements.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

That is less than half of the £3 billion that is needed. What are the Government going to do to meet the ambition of our authorities, which really want to deliver a modern, reliable transport service? The Minister spoke earlier about the importance of getting people to use buses, but unless they are reliable and affordable, people will not use them. People need to know that they can get to work. It is fundamental that we have that investment. What can the Minister do to make sure that we secure it?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The hon. Lady makes the obvious point, so I will continue. There is £525 million to deliver zero-emission buses over this Parliament, of which £355 million is new funding, announced in the spending review. There is the £1.5 billion of covid support to maintain the service levels during covid until next April, and over £500 million from the city region sustainable transport settlement. There will always be more to do, but the Government, in particular my Department through the transport decarbonisation plan, have set out how we are spending billions in transforming the public transport network.

It is important to say how we can ensure people that get to the places they need to be, using the products they need. It is particularly relevant to the north-west that we recently appointed Chris Boardman as the interim chief executive for Active Travel England. With over £500 million of funding, he will have the ability to increase the infrastructure to encourage and enable people to walk and cycle. That will ensure that those networks that are proposed by our local authorities meet the essential criteria for a safe network. We are working with car clubs, such as Enterprise Car Club and Liftshare. Buses are a very important part of the network in getting people to the places they need to be, but they are not the only way that we will be able to do that in the future. It would be a good to offer a meeting to all of my colleagues across the north-west to discuss that in more detail. I understand that Members in this House are excellent enablers, champions and ambassadors for the way that their constituents can get about.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I was struck that the Minister recognised the surprise that I felt, when I first arrived in the capital, at the ease and affordability of bus services. My constituents want to know when they will no longer be paying twice the fare to get half the distance on their local buses.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will return to my main points and hopefully address the hon. Gentleman’s queries. As has been said, the national bus strategy will be critical; we believe it is the biggest shake-up in a generation. We are absolutely committed to delivering the transformational changes that have been called for this morning, which passengers throughout the country deserve. Our strategy explains how we will make buses more frequent and reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper. It sets out how we want to see fares, including low flat fares, maximum fares and daily price caps, become the norm in cities and towns.

English local transport authorities outside London have developed bus service improvement plans, setting out local visions for the step change in services that is needed, driven by what passengers and would-be passengers want. The central aim of our bus strategy is to get more people travelling by bus, and we will achieve that only if we make buses a practical and attractive alternative to the car for more people. Strong local plans, delivered through enhanced partnerships between authorities and bus operators or franchising arrangements, are crucial to achieving that. We have been clear that enhanced partnerships or franchising arrangements must deliver more comprehensive services, including those that are socially or economically necessary to drive forward the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

Authorities will submit draft versions of their enhanced partnership plans and schemes to the DFT by the end of April this year. Liverpool city region announced its decision to adopt franchising for local bus services on 4 March. On 2 February the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, unveiled the Government’s levelling-up White Paper, which sets out a plan to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of our country. Local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing. The Government will fund ambitious plans for bus improvements in areas where that can make the most impact, including the mayoral city regions, Stoke-on-Trent, Derbyshire and Warrington.

We must address the long-term decline in bus patronage; the bus industry cannot do so on its own. We need to develop a much closer collaborative working relationship with the industry; we recognise that this relationship has improved through the pandemic, and it must continue to deepen. The Government have made it clear through the national bus strategy that close partnership working, via enhanced partnerships, will be a condition of Government funding for buses.

We believe that only through such collaboration can the right combination of LTA action—for example, through more bus priority and operator action by improving services on the ground—and targeted Government funding increase overall bus patronage. Of course bus operators should do their part, by making long-term investments in buses and services to ensure that buses are an attractive alternative mode of transport to the car. It is vital that we go further and faster to decarbonise all vehicles, including buses, because they have an essential role to play in transport achieving net zero and driving our green transformation. A double-decker bus can take 75 cars off the road, helping to reduce the impact of transport on the environment. However, we know that we will achieve that only if we can demonstrate to more people that buses are a practical and attractive alternative to the car.

So we remain committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses and achieving an all zero-emission bus fleet. I will just repeat how pleased I am that Warrington has taken the lead in transitioning its entire fleet—all 120 buses—to battery-electric vehicles, because such action will support our climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and support high-quality green jobs. In the spending review 2021, the Government announced £355 million of new funding for zero-emission buses and we are providing £525 million of funding for zero-emission buses in this Parliament.

It is also important to talk about the infrastructure that will be introduced at a brand-new bus depot in Warrington, which is part of the Warrington town deal. Over the past two decades, the bus and coach industry has made tremendous efforts to bring fleets into line with the Public Services Vehicles Accessibility Regulations, revolutionising access to public transport for millions of disabled people.

Significant progress has been made already, with over 99% of buses on local routes meeting the minimum legal accessibility standards and almost every bus operator requiring its drivers to complete disability awareness training. However, just as the nature of transport provision changes, so do the needs of our passengers, which is why, in the national bus strategy published in March 2021, we committed to review the ongoing efficiency of the accessibility regulations by the end of 2023. We have committed to require the provision of audible and visual information on board local services throughout Great Britain, and to consult on regulatory changes to improve access to wheelchair spaces.

The bus strategy also seeks to improve the convenience, integration and value for money of bus ticketing, through the introduction of multi-operator contactless capped fares within each LTA area. Work is under way to ensure that technology is in place to support that aspiration. Locally set fare caps should ensure that passengers making multiple journeys on a pay-as-you-go basis are charged no more than the price of a daily ticket, with little or no premium levied for using more than one operator, effectively converting a bank card and mobile phone into a virtual travelcard.

All enhanced partnerships will be encouraged to consider the development of a multi-operator ticketing scheme, to help make multi-leg journeys feel more joined-up. In turn, these partnerships will help to support the use of public transport to out-of-town employment, education and healthcare sites, among other journey purposes.

We want to improve passengers’ access to accurate journey planning information, including timetables, fares and location data, so that passengers can plan their journeys, find the best value tickets and receive real-time updates on the services they use. The bus open data service is a new digital service provided by the Department for Transport that is transforming the delivery of bus passenger information across England. Using open data and intelligent services, the aim of the service is to enable passengers to plan their journeys easily, find best-value tickets and receive real-time service updates at the touch of a button.

Perhaps now is also a good time to reflect on the work that our safety champions have been doing. Yesterday, which was International Women’s Day, I travelled to Birmingham to meet Laura Shoaf and Anne Shaw, in order to discuss the 13 recommendations that we very much hope will protect the most vulnerable people on our transport network. They are specifically aimed at improving the safety of women and girls across the transport system, but they are particularly relevant to the public transport system. They include, for instance, ensuring that we can design out crime, the natural surveillance that comes from a well-designed—

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Order. May I remind the Minister that she does not need to fill up all the time, and that she should try to stick to buses in the north-west?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I appreciate that word of advice, Ms Nokes. My point was that as part of our digital transformation, we will be using data to advise passengers on when their buses are coming, so that there is absolutely no need to linger at the bus stop or the train station. That is an important point, because we are moving to an on-demand and more convenient transport system. Open data will transform how we travel by providing an on-demand service and real-time journey planners, which will empower customers to make the best choices for their travel needs. Regulations will mandate that bus operators must release information to help passengers make better informed and cost-effective travel choices.

The bus strategy recognises the need to address long-term skills deficits and staff shortages in local transport authorities and the bus industry. Some £25 million has been allocated to a range of measures to support an increase in staff capacity and capability; that includes additional funding for LTA resource, and the development of a bus centre of excellence. The centre of excellence will help LTAs and operators to work in partnership more effectively, achieve more with Government funding, and find mechanisms to increase demand and reduce inefficiencies in bus service delivery.

In summary, I hope all this demonstrates that the Government are committed to improving bus services. The Government are clear that ensuring that better bus services are delivered across England will be one of our major acts of levelling up. As we recover from the pandemic, good bus services will be vital in ensuring that communities are connected to family, employment, educational opportunities and much, much more. I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North for the opportunity to speak so positively about buses.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North 10:32 am, 9th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), and Jim Shannon, for their contributions to today’s debate. Although we represent very different and diverse communities across north-west England—and even further north-west, in the case of the hon. Member for Strangford —the story for buses is the same.

Having to take multiple bus services for a journey that would be straightforward by car is a daily reality across our region, not least because of a lack of orbital routes, as they tend to be less profitable, but also because of a lack of connecting services between our towns and cities. Levelling up requires the investment to enable integrated, affordable and green public transport. I am glad that the Minister highlighted some of the incredible achievements of Warrington’s Own Buses, but so much of that is possible because we do not have the broken franchise model that causes so many of the problems elsewhere that we have heard about today. I believe that we are now one of only 10 municipal bus companies left, which means that we seek to operate in the public interest, not for private profit.

In Warrington, Government covid subsidy funding is now secured through to September 2022, but there could well be a cliff edge after that, particularly if fuel costs continue to skyrocket and the funding spoken about today just keeps us where we are. We need to receive our full funding ask through the BSIP—the bus service improvement plan—including capital and operating expenditure funding streams if we are to be able to improve. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was exactly right to highlight the fact that, for hon. Members who split our week between London and our north-west constituencies, the gulf between the service provision at home and the service provision here is staggering. If it is good enough for London, it is good enough for the north-west. I hope the Minister will take away our concerns and comments to her Department and ensure that the Government’s ambition finally begins to be met in our regions.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered funding for bus service improvement plans in the North West.

Sitting suspended.