Bus Services: England — [Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:28 am on 21 May 2024.

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[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 2:30, 21 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered bus services in England.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. Connecting communities through better public transport has been one of my top priorities since I was elected in December 2019 by the fine people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. I am therefore delighted to have secured funding—with my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon)—for the return of the Stoke-Leek line, millions more to fix the potholes that drive us potty in the Potteries, and upgrades to Stoke-on-Trent railway station and Station Road. However, like other Members from across the House, I know that buses remain the most important and valued form of public transport.

Stoke-on-Trent’s road network harks back to the Victorian era. The city is made up of six towns in an unconventional layout, and fewer residents than the national average own or have access to a motor vehicle. Other major cities benefit from underground networks, and in some cases trams, but our city relies solely on its good-quality bus network. Buses are vital in connecting our communities across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. They enable people to shop, eat and drink, see loved ones, get to school or college, attend a local GP appointment or enjoy one of the many great tourist attractions our city has to offer, such as the Spitfire gallery in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

Despite the large number of people who require or would like to use the bus, the local bus network across Britain shrunk by an estimated 14% between 2016-17 and 2021-22. The BBC reported in early 2023 that about 13% of bus services across England are supported by councils. That places heavier pressure on local authority budgets, which are more stretched than ever since covid and the cost of living pressures that resulted in large part from the post-covid global recovery and Putin’s illegal and immoral war in Ukraine, which spiked energy costs and fuelled inflation.

Bus demand plummeted during the global covid-19 pandemic, and is still recovering; reports show that passenger numbers across Britain, excluding London, remain about 20% below pre-pandemic levels. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have felt that more than most other areas. Across the city, bus services shrank by an estimated 50% between 2013-14 and 2021-22. However, it is important to caveat that: to a large extent, the reductions came not from the closure of entire routes, but from repeated timetable changes that, by sleight of hand, reduced how frequently buses arrive or how late into the evening they run.

In summer 2022, I hosted two well-attended meetings in Chell Heath and Smallthorne, at which local residents and I held First Potteries and D&G to account. We were determined to ensure that the operators stop slashing routes, which is making it harder for local people to get around. Residents told me that they need better and more straightforward routes to places such as Leek—passengers are currently required to change buses—and a direct link to Wolstanton retail park to do their shopping. Elderly passengers told me that the lack of routes made them isolated. Parents told me that their children could not get to their college or apprenticeship easily. Businesses told me that the lack of routes was a challenge for recruitment and retention, as many employers still work on shift patterns that do not work within existing timetables. Shops on our high streets felt that the poor quality of service meant that people were shopping outside Stoke-on-Trent.

That argument was reinforced by a survey I conducted of more than 1,000 local residents across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Some 76% said they would use the bus to go shopping, and 57% said they would undertake more leisure activities, if better bus services were available. In addition, 64% said bus services could be improved by having better routes to get them to different parts of the city so that they can get out and about. Residents also expressed their desire for better services in the evening, with 49.6% saying bus services could be improved if they ran later. That is especially the case for women and girls, who might be concerned about getting home safely.

I have outlined the challenges we face nationally and in Stoke-on-Trent, but it would be unfair not to mention the unprecedented support and subsidy that bus operators have received since I was elected in 2019, particularly during the pandemic, when passenger numbers plummeted because people were staying at home to protect loved ones. Since 2020 the Government have announced more than £4.5 billion of funding for buses in England, outside of London. Between March 2020 and June 2023, over £2 billion of taxpayers’ hard-earned money was used in emergency and recovery funding to mitigate the impact of the covid pandemic on the bus sector. The Department for Transport also makes up to £259 million available every year for bus operators and local authorities to help operators keep fares down and run services that might otherwise be unprofitable and could be cancelled. Without that support, we would simply have seen services cease entirely, and bus operators go out of business. I therefore pass on my thanks to the Government for intervening. I also thank the many bus drivers who kept going into work, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, when we had no vaccine. Simply by turning up to work, they were putting themselves in harm’s way.

In addition to the covid recovery grant, Councillors Abi Brown and Daniel Jellyman, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South and I successfully campaigned for and received over £31 million for Stoke-on-Trent to improve our bus services through the bus service improvement plan, enabling us to start busing back better. We bid for new bus routes across the city, based on concerns we had heard from residents and businesses across Stoke-on-Trent. Our goal was to help thousands more people get around the city, while reducing congestion on our road network. We also campaigned for better bus stops and shelters across the city. I was recently on Chell Heath Road, where we can see investment to improve boarding kerbs, which will be particularly helpful for elderly and disabled residents. We want to improve the quality of bus shelters to encourage people on to the buses in bad weather and to have electronic boards to ensure that people can keep on track of the new and improved services.

To improve existing routes in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, the 8 and 36/36A services have been extended. The improved 36/36A service means the bus routes start earlier and finish much later, better connecting the three towns in Stoke-on-Trent North—Kidsgrove, Tunstall and Burslem. That means people can enjoy a day out at Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire’s award-winning indoor market in Tunstall, enjoy a pint or two at the Bull’s Head in Burslem, see the mighty Port Vale on match day at Vale Park, and visit the mother town of Stoke-on-Trent—Burslem—to enjoy the historic Middleport Pottery and a tour around Titanic Brewery.

The extension of the No. 8 route means that the people of Ball Green, Norton and Smallthorne will benefit from a weekend service, enabling them to get to and from the city centre, which needs to see increased footfall. It will also enable elderly relatives to see their family and friends more easily. For too long communities, particularly in wards such as Baddeley, Milton and Norton, have felt disconnected from the city and all it has to offer. Councillors Dave Evans and Carl Edwards have lobbied relentlessly with me to improve connectivity. There is still more to be done on the location of bus stops in the ward, but this is a good first step to better connecting communities.

It is not just Stoke-on-Trent that is reaping the benefits of bus funding. Bus funding for Staffordshire County Council has been used to introduce, for the first time in years, a bus service that connects Mow Cop and Harriseahead with the rest of Newchapel, Kidsgrove, Whitehill, Talke and Butt Lane. The brand-new 95 route enables residents to get down to Clough Hall Park or Kidsgrove Sports Centre to keep fit and active, or to enjoy a coffee or some shopping at the Affinity shopping centre. The conversations I have had on doorsteps indicate that the route, run by D&G, has been warmly received by local residents. I have been a passenger myself, and by hopping on at one of our nearest bus stops—the Butt Lane Co-op on Cedar Avenue—my family and I can enjoy a day out, such as seeing Jodrell Bank from Mow Cop castle.

This landmark investment also creates fairer fares for passengers. We have been able to cut bus fares by a third with a new £3.50-a-day flat fare, which has massively helped to drive up footfall and consumer confidence in our local bus service. On a recent visit to the First Potteries depot in Stoke-on-Trent, I spoke with staff about the impact of the Government’s £31.7 million investment in Stoke-on-Trent’s bus services. Staff told me that there has been an improvement since the funding came in, and that is backed up by research from Transport Focus, which reveals that Stoke-on-Trent is now ranked fourth for most satisfied bus users and second for value for money. Believe me, those are figures I did not think I would see when I was first elected.

I was also told of the positive impact of the £3.50-a-day fare cap and the £2 fare on single journeys, which supports over 5,000 routes across England, including those in Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke. Transport Focus’s research has revealed that 11% of respondents are using the bus more thanks to the capped fare, with 80% agreeing that the £2 ticket has helped with the cost of living. That research is supported by Department for Transport statistics, which show that, following the introduction of the cap, bus fares in England, outside of London, dropped by 6.2% between December 2022 and December 2023, and by over 11% in rural and non-metropolitan areas. However, in Scotland, Wales and London—where buses are devolved—fares increased by 9.8%, 8.1% and 6% respectively.

In addition to the landmark £31 million to bus back better, communities across England such as Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire are benefiting from the Prime Minister’s bold new vision for the midlands and north, with a huge uplift in funding as a result of the cancellation of the northern leg of High Speed 2. The reallocation of £36 billion from HS2 will mean that Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire cumulatively benefit from over £200 million in additional funding for our roads and pavements, while Stoke-on-Trent will receive £19 million a year over the next seven years for transport from the local government transport fund. That unprecedented investment will help us compete with London and the south-east, which typically have better roads and transport links, in part because they generate more revenue from council tax and parking fees in comparison to northern towns and cities such as Stoke-on-Trent.

I am campaigning to support elderly and disabled residents to use their concessionary bus passes before 9.30 am. Research from the House of Commons Library shows that in 2020 almost a quarter of older persons across the country and just over a third of disabled people were allowed to use their bus passes before 9.30 am by local authorities. Not every concessionary bus pass user will need to travel early every day, but it gives vulnerable people security to know that, when they do, they will not be charged. We cannot put a price on giving those who need support the confidence to travel around Stoke-on-Trent and the surrounding area.

At Prime Minister’s questions on 29 November 2023, I was delighted that the Prime Minister supported my campaign to scrap the cap, saying that he “wholeheartedly” backed it. However, Labour-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council has so far failed to back it. In misleading comments given to the BBC, cabinet member Councillor Chris Robinson said Stoke-on-Trent City Council was not responsible for setting the timings for concessionary fares. I have therefore written to Councillor Robinson to make it clear that Department for Transport guidance states that free travel is at the discretion of local authorities, with the guidance stating:

“The national bus concession in England is available at any time on a Saturday, Sunday or bank holiday, and from 9.30 am to 11 pm on any other day.”

It goes on to say that travel concession authorities

“are able to offer concessionary travel outside these hours on a discretionary basis.”

Despite having written over 100 days ago, I am yet to hear back from any of the Labour councillors in the cabinet of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. However, with the backing of over 1,600 local people via my “Scrap the Cap” petition, I am determined to keep going and ensure that no excuse is used, particularly now that there has been such a substantial increase in Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s transport budget.

Lots of residents have written to me to say why they back the campaign. Pamela from Tunstall says:

“Many pensioners can’t afford to own a car and need buses to get to appointments. The older we become the more important it is to have access to the bus.”

Roland from Talke Pits asks:

“What is the point in having a free bus travel pass when it restricts people at a time when it is most needed not only for convenience, but to save money which in most cases these people can ill afford to lose.”

Roderick from Milton says:

“Being able to use the buses before 9.30 would mean that it would be a lot easier to make connections to other buses and to be able to get to Stoke Station to catch earlier trains.”

It is therefore vital that Stoke-on-Trent Labour listens and delivers for residents by backing my campaign. I hope the Minister will use today to join myself and the Prime Minister in calling on Stoke-on-Trent City Council to scrap the cap.

When visiting the First Potteries depot a few weeks ago, I spoke to Zoe Hands from First Bus about the exciting opportunity for a new electric bus fleet to come to Stoke-on-Trent. First Bus is ready and willing to invest £37 million in a brand-new electric bus fleet for our great city, but this ambition must be met with an around £11 million investment from Stoke-on-Trent City Council. These brand-new buses would not only encourage travel because they would be more modern and exciting but make a huge difference to improving air quality in Stoke-on-Trent. The fleet we currently have roaming around our city is old, and a more reliable, modern fleet would reduce the number of costly repairs, keeping buses on our roads and out of workshops.

I am therefore working with First Potteries and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South to make sure Stoke-on-Trent City Council plays its part in facilitating this exciting plan and invests that £11 million to support a new, sustainable bus fleet. First Bus has made it clear that if the council can deliver the necessary investment and infrastructure, these new buses could begin carrying passengers in early 2025. The Government have already shown their ambition by allocating over £460 million in dedicated funding for zero-emission buses in this Parliament, of which Staffordshire County Council has already been a recipient. I have now written to Stoke-on-Trent City Council about these exciting plans, and I hope the council will deliver for people in Stoke-on-Trent and make this sensible investment to enhance the city’s bus network.

In conclusion, as I have laid out, good local bus services are so important for local communities. They help to drive people on to our high streets, to encourage growth and investment and to liberate the elderly and disabled, giving them more freedom to get out and about. They provide health benefits by reducing congestion and improving air quality, and they help people get to work or college, which they would otherwise have been unable to do. In short, buses are pivotal to achieving levelling up, which matters hugely. If we really want to transform communities such as Stoke-on-Trent, we must ensure that the infrastructure exists to empower and embolden their people and businesses. To do that, there has to be a reliable public transport network to help people get around. Buses are the most popular form of transport and serve as great liberators for millions of people. It is vital that we get them right.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

I remind Members that there is the possibility of a Division in the House during the course of the debate.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 2:45, 21 May 2024

It is an honour, Ms Vaz, to serve with you in the Chair. I pay tribute to Jonathan Gullis not only for securing this debate but for sticking up for his constituents by talking about the reasons why they need bus transport.

Let me read from an email that I received in October 2022, shortly after I was first elected to the House. It was a very pleasant read, and begins:

“I would like to invite you to brunch at Greendale Farm cafe on Sunday morning. My treat. The only stipulation is that we both travel there on public transport.”

I was obviously quite keen to take up that invitation, until I looked into it a bit further and found that Donna from Seaton was entirely right to predict that I would not be able to meet her at Greendale Farm café that Sunday morning for her treat. She knew all too well that buses do not travel there on a Sunday morning, because her son had started using that route. He had shown the get-up-and-go to get himself a part-time job over the summer, but unfortunately the bus route was withdrawn by the network provider partway through the tourist season. Donna went on to say:

“The government has a responsibility to provide a public transport system that is fit for purpose and it is failing.”

I will return to Donna at the end of my speech.

Outside London, almost a quarter of bus routes have been cut in the last 10 years, yet buses are the easiest form of public transport to flex. The service can be introduced, improved and expanded very readily, but of course that also means that it can be reduced or withdrawn just as quickly. For many people living in cities or other urban areas, buses are something that they can depend on. They are always there; they can be taken for granted. People living in urban areas probably do not pay too much attention to buses, because they know that if they miss one there will be another one along shortly. However, for the people I represent in rural mid and east Devon, not only are buses an essential part of daily life, but they are so infrequent that even a single delay or no-show can have a huge impact on someone’s journey.

Most of the villages and towns that I represent are served by a bus company called Stagecoach. Although that name might conjure up in the mind the idea of an 18th-century horse and a gilded mail-coach that rapidly gets the post from rural Devon to London, that is simply not the sort of image that bus users in Devon have today. In fact, it more probably brings to mind the potholes that the stagecoaches of the 1800s had to negotiate.

In recent years, bus routes in my constituency have been increasingly scaled back often with very little public consultation. Since I was elected in 2022, we have seen changes to the No. 1 service between Cullompton and Exeter, to the No. 55 service between Tiverton and Exeter, to the No. 9A, which connects Seaton and Exeter, and to several other routes that plug people into our towns, or at least used to.

As a regular bus user, I know it is not uncommon to have to wait up to half an hour after the allotted time for the bus to round the corner. That would not be such a big issue if it were a consistent bus that could be depended on, but it is not. I will give an example from about 18 months ago, when I was waiting at a bus stop in Uffculme to get to the railway station at Tiverton Parkway, to come here. I was waiting with a young lad who told me he was going into Exeter to sit his driving theory test.

We waited as the bus was 15 minutes late, then 20 minutes late. I could see he was getting anxious and jittery about missing his theory test. In the end, I gave up and called a taxi. I knew that Colin round the corner was reliable and would get us there. We gave this young lad a lift and he made it to his theory test on time. It occurred to me that we cannot depend on the bus, and should not have to depend on other bus users to call a taxi to get to an onward connection on time.

As this is a rural area, not only the buses but the trains are infrequent. If we miss our connection, we can be delayed for more than an hour, maybe for two. Young people trying to get to college, for example, are forced either to wait for those long periods or to depend on family, perhaps their parents, to run them into the city. That is affecting people’s working days. There is a material effect, as people have to leave their working from home jobs or perhaps take time out of their working day to run young people to college.

I imagine we might hear from the Minister about the benefits of the bus fare cap. I admit that that has been a welcome measure for regular bus users, but capping fares does not mean much if the bus does not arrive in the first place. A couple of years ago, the west country was right at the bottom of the league table for bus delays for the whole of England. Since then, the appointment of a new managing director, Peter Knight, has been welcome. I have met him several times and he has certainly improved the service from two years ago. He pointed out to me that an area such as Devon has a large population of older people, who have concessionary fares or may travel on free bus passes. That has a material effect on the bus company trying to operate the contract in the area. Making a bus route profitable can be tremendously difficult in an area where lots of people use concessionary fares or pay nothing for the service.

In conclusion, I come back to the original correspondence I had from Donna. She had a practical suggestion, on which I am keen to hear the Minister’s take. She writes:

“The country networks should be divided into routes, and their associated profitability, and then these routes combined into baskets, which group both profitable and non-profitable routes together. The Government determines the timetable”— or perhaps local authorities could do that—

“The provider must deliver on that timetable, taking the good with the bad.”

Instead, we have the correspondence I received from a Government Minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, who wrote to me in October 2022. She said that since deregulation in 1985, bus services have been on a commercial footing, so I should write not to a Minister but to the bus company about my concerns, as that would be the most appropriate action. Listening to the concerns of constituents who cannot get to work on time, I am struck that this is not only a matter for private companies. It also needs to be a concern for Government.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 2:54, 21 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I congratulate my city colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), on securing this important debate. Bus services are extremely important to everyone in the Potteries and right across England—notably for those in deprived and remote communities, but also for those who are wedded to their cars. Road congestion would be even worse for those people if bus services did not take some of that strain.

We all have a stake in bus services being attractive and successful. Of course, that does not mean that bus services are always the optimal solution to road congestion, because often local rail or trams will be more efficient than buses in that regard. However, it does mean that buses are a necessary part of the mix, and we need to ensure that they are attractive enough to tempt more people out of their cars.

I very much support the initiative proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North on the fare cap, which is causing severe issues for many of our constituents. I visited Strathmore College, in my constituency, on Friday. It provides education to young people with special educational needs, and college staff told me about the challenges of the 9.30 am start, and the impact on their young people’s ability to access education. I was talking to the principal there, Kate Ward, about some of the travel training that they are providing to young people, and the impact that the 9.30 am start has on them. I very much support my hon. Friend’s campaign to address that issue.

The focus of my comments in the debate will be on non-metropolitan areas of England, outside London. This particularly means north Staffordshire, which includes, but extends further than, the Potteries bus network, which itself extends further than the city of Stoke-on-Trent. If that sounds complicated, I should also add that the city is cut in two by Network Rail management areas, which all adds up to public transport solutions being harder to come by than public transport problems in north Staffordshire. The decline of bus services in our area over many years now is partly because we lack seamless public transport services and partly because we suffer some of the worst road congestion in Europe. We need to increase demand for bus travel in order to keep services financially viable in the future.

That gives me a welcome opportunity to plug my private Member’s Bill to preserve and enhance high streets through mandatory improvement plans. The Bill received its Second Reading in the other place last Friday, ably moved by my noble Friend Lord Whitby, the former leader of Birmingham City Council. Optimal accessibility by bus to designated and improved high streets under my Bill will surely be a part of any local authority’s considerations in its high street reviews. That will be particularly important in the market hub towns identified by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that have high streets of importance to surrounding rural areas. In proximity to my constituency, these include Cheadle and Stone. Many residents living in villages throughout parts of north Staffordshire, such as Forsbrook, Tean and Alton, have raised with me the lack of effective bus services.

Locally, I am glad that the bus service improvement plan, on which we, as MPs, were active and contributing consultees and for which we helped to secure Government funding, is making it cheaper to travel by bus. The fare is £3.50 per day now—or £12.50 per week—in the Potteries “smart” area, which I think will be a massive bonus for attracting more people on to the bus network. The plan combines with work from the transforming cities fund, which we also helped to secure, making it easier to catch a bus, and more desirable to travel by bus.

However, unfortunately it has been painful for us, as MPs, to see how slowly our city councillors delivered on any of the funding that we worked so hard to secure. The package needs to be delivered with greater urgency. I thank the Department for its patience, and I hope Ministers will continue to press the city council to get all the promised and funded schemes over the line without any further watering-down of ambition by the current Labour council leadership.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend, because I am aware that he is making a number of points, but I take his point about the council. I just want to make it very clear that we will continue to press the council to respond and produce the results that it clearly needs to produce. I also echo and endorse the point made by my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis that responsibility for concessionary fares absolutely lies with the local authority.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I thank my hon. Friend—actually, I think he is right honourable.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

Well, he should be. I thank him for the work that he has been doing in the Department to push on some of these issues. That has been a great assistance, and I know he will continue to work hard for us in the Department.

On the TCF package, we were promised that if funding was won, the city council would deliver a more efficient bus-rail interchange at Stoke station. Works are starting on the site this week, but we need further action to reinstate some of those cross-city bus routes that serve the places that rail cannot reach without people having to change and wait at our city centre in Hanley.

It will be a betrayal if the city council fails to deliver effectively the package promised. Our local buses now routinely take card payments, in line with 93% of buses across England. In fact, the worry now is not that buses will not take cards, but that they will not take cash in the future. We must nip such fears in the bud, and I would welcome any comments from the Minister on ensuring that cash payment will continue to be accepted on buses well in the future.

Under BSIP and TCF, it is now far more usual for Stoke-on-Trent bus stops to be elevated above the standard kerb height so that wheelchairs, prams and so on can be more easily wheeled on and off services. Those who find the step up and step down from the bus more challenging no longer struggle so much—except, of course, when the bus cannot pull into the bus stop because someone has decided to park there, often hurling abuse at the bus driver who tries to move them on. Thankfully, it is rare that these things turn violent, but the range of antisocial behaviour we see on public transport, whether against drivers or against other passengers, seems to be widening. That is why I particularly welcome Government funding for new transport safety officers to help reduce ASB on buses and trains throughout Stoke-on-Trent.

London continues to dominate the bus statistics, accounting for 52.2% of all passenger journeys in the year to March 2023, but it is encouraging that non-metropolitan England has seen the strongest recovery in passenger journeys over the past two years, with the number up 133.4%. That beats metropolitan areas, where they are up 111.4%, and London, where they are up 106.3%. Over the past two years, bus mileage in non-metropolitan England is up 11.3%, which compares favourably with the 2.1% increase in metropolitan England and the decline of 1.3% in London. But—I pause deliberately, because it is a big but—all three areas saw declines in bus mileage in the latter year of the two-year period. I am afraid that reflects what we are seeing on the ground: some bus routes have been cut from, say, half-hourly to hourly, and rural stretches have been cut altogether.

However, the decline that we have seen over many years may be about to reverse because of the £31 million bus improvement funding that we have secured. We are seeking new and expanded routes, particularly in the evenings and at weekends, across the Potteries. Thanks to the funding, Lightwood, which has not had a service for many years, has just had one reinstated, with the extension of the No. 50. More services in the evenings and at weekends will help shift workers, who often struggle to get to and from their shifts. A number of other services have been extended: the No. 6 has an earlier start at weekends; evening services have been introduced on the No. 11; Sunday services of the No. 23 have been extended to Newstead; the No. 26 has an extra service every hour; and the new 36/36A service in the evenings for Meir and Meir Park will make a massive difference to those areas.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, local operators are starting to have a much more positive outlook, with First also looking to restore services to communities such as Sandford Hill and Saxon Fields, which lost its services some years ago. I very much also support my hon. Friend’s campaign to get the fleet renewed, because we need investment in new, zero-emission and sustainable buses throughout north Staffordshire. I join him in urging Stoke-on-Trent City Council to take seriously the proposals by First to invest in upgrading the fleet, which will help to attract more people back on to our bus services and help to address some of the serious air quality issues that we have seen in a number of parts of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire.

It is not just about buses; local rail should also be taking a bigger share of public transport demand in north Staffordshire. Sadly, in accordance with Beeching’s proposals, Stoke-on-Trent lost the entire loop line that served four of the six towns, leaving three with no town centre trains at all, while the fourth town, Fenton in my constituency, lost its stations on both the Crewe-Derby line and the Stoke-Leek line. The suburbs of Trentham and Meir in my constituency also lost their stations. Relying on buses to absorb the traffic, as Beeching claimed they would, has proven to be a great mistake—so notably so that Meir, I am delighted to say, is set to have its station rebuilt under the restoring your railway programme. I continue to push for it to be delivered with every urgency, and connected to local bus services too. Importantly, restoring your railway is a reversal of the Beeching mindset, not just the Beeching cuts. It has been accepted that bus services alone cannot solve the pressing issues of transport deprivation and chronic road congestion in Meir.

In Trentham, the effect of the Beeching axe has been compounded by the decision of the last Labour Government to close the nearby stations at Wedgwood and Barlaston. That very Beeching-mindset move very marginally speed up the west coast main line through the Potteries arc, but only for the benefit of people travelling between Manchester and London. Again, local buses have not filled the gap in the south of the city, and I am pressing the West Midlands Rail Executive and Network Rail to forge ahead with their work towards restoring a station in the south of the city to replace at least one of the three that have been lost.

In Fenton, again, the problem of road congestion and pollution is cannot be solved by buses alone. We need Fenton Manor station on the Stoke-Leek line restored—my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has been a great champion of that, too. The station was closed to passenger traffic in 1956, but it is now advancing through the restoring your railway fund, and it was committed for delivery in the Government’s Network North Command Paper.

It will, of course, be crucial that those rail infrastructure projects are connected to bus services and that we achieve multi-modal public transport journeys that are as seamless as possible. That should include a station at Bucknall that offers easy interchange with existing bus services along the Werrington Road to places such as Tean, and along Dividy Road to places such as Parl Hall.

In 2022, on average, people in households without access to a car made over six times as many local bus trips as those with access to a car; the figures were 131 trips per person and 20 trips per person respectively. Local bus services account for over half of all public transport trips made by people in households without access to a car. Bus services will continue to be a lifeline, but more effectively so if we can marry them up seamlessly with a growing local rail network. I note that among people in households with access to a car, under half—45%—of all public transport trips are made by bus, which suggests that people with cars are more easily tempted out of them by trains than by buses. The mix needs to be right.

I conclude with a plea to local companies to add more bus services to the mix in north Staffordshire that do not involve having to change at Hanley. Restoration of a route from Trentham to Cheadle, via Longton, Blythe Bridge, Tean, and Forsbrook, is a top priority; in peak season, it could run to Alton Towers. Thanks to this Government, with TCF, BSIP and RYR, the progress and momentum are definitely there for north Staffordshire to enjoy a meaningful revolution, frankly, in public transport provision. We must keep the momentum going and make travelling by bus more attractive, more viable and more connected, seamlessly with local rail.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 3:09, 21 May 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I thank my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for securing this incredibly important debate.

From 2022 to 2023, the number of bus miles travelled in County Durham dropped by 18% from 14.5 million to 11.8 million, and the number of miles supported by the local authority dropped by 25% from 2.6 million to just under 2 million. Durham also saw a decline in journeys per head of population from 33.8 to 32.6. What is happening is just a complete decline. The county is among the worst for buses running on time, with just 77% running on time in March ’23.

But those are just statistics; the real thing for all our constituents is the detail that sits underneath them. I have a list of bus changes, the first of which is to the No. 7, which has increased its frequency from half-hourly to hourly. Brilliant—now I will read out the rest, which go the other way. The No. 8A has been reduced, with the removal of Sunday services, and the No. 12 has been withdrawn completely. The No. 22 and No. 22B have been reduced, down from half-hourly. The hourly X21 service from Darlington to Peterlee has been scrapped, while the X22 is going to change. There is just this inconsistency. The Scarlet Band 112 has been lost completely, as has the 113 connecting Fishburn, Sedgefield, Ferryhill and Bishop Middleham. The Arriva 57, which connected Durham and Trimdon to Hartlepool, has been replaced with another, alternative service. This jumping just confuses people.

We also have the X12, which goes past Fishburn. Our residents told the Minister on a recent visit that the direction of the route needed to be changed, with just a slight deviation. On this occasion I give credit to Arriva, which has a consultation out on doing exactly that—although that is just about the only favourable thing I can say about Arriva at the moment. Arriva has also removed the X21, which has generated more constituent casework than any other service. It is the connection that would get my people from the mining villages, such as all the Trimdons—there are several of them—Fishburn and Sedgefield. These are deprived communities, with very low car ownership. What has Arriva done? It has removed the umbilical cord that gets them to Newton Aycliffe. Newton Aycliffe has an industrial estate with 10,000 jobs on it. There is everything there, from major organisations like your Hitachis, your Gestamps and your Husqvarnas, down to the myriad small and medium-sized enterprises.

This is a lifeline for those communities, but the Trimdons and Fishburn are places with low population density and low job opportunities, and now they face this commute. To compound it all, they are also places with incredibly low car ownership. In a survey of the Trimdons, which over 400 residents participated in, most complained that the lack of bus services severely restricted their lifestyle. Some 40% of residents have had to turn down employment or education opportunities because the transport connections did not exist to get them there. Stories have been posted in the local Facebook group about young people giving up jobs or turning them down due to these transport challenges. The jobcentre has said that transport challenges are the greatest difficulty in placing people into work. I am really pleased that the recent grant for Durham can be used for infrastructure, such as new buses, bus stations and road improvements, but it cannot be used as revenue support for unprofitable routes. I think we really need to look at kick-starting these situations, even if through something short term, just to pump-prime those routes.

I want to repeat something that I said recently, in a debate on miners and mining communities, about low connectivity. For me, social mobility can only come with physical mobility. If people cannot get to the jobs, it is very difficult for them to improve themselves, no matter where they are. We have so many wonderful employment opportunities in Newton Aycliffe and NETPark, but the bus services connecting them to the mining villages are just appalling. The single most crucial factor in enabling those mining communities to thrive will be better transport, because they have incredibly low levels of car ownership, as I have said, and they are far too isolated to walk or cycle from. The efforts to improve connectivity are more critical than just about anything else going on in my part of the world. It is not only the people trying to get to jobs; right here, right now, people are trying to get to the DWP to sign on. They cannot even get there to get to their appointments to get the development, to get them to—I think you know where I am going, Ms Vaz.

There have been some attempts at improvement. Durham has something it calls Link2work, which is a dial-a-ride situation. But it is so specific: it potentially gets people to a 7 o’clock shift, and that is it. I am currently working with it and we are hopeful of getting another proposal that will expand Link2work so that people can get to a nine-to-five job as opposed to a shift pattern job, or, with a bit of luck, go shopping or to education facilities. I am hopeful; we are seeing some movement in that direction.

I will digress a bit and endorse what was said by my hon. Friend from the other Stoke—I cannot remember which one—

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

I endorse what my hon. Friend Jack Brereton said about the importance of rail links. A restoring your railway project has been approved for Ferryhill station and is ongoing. It will deliver economic growth to the station and stimulate economic activity—all the things that make villages feel like we care and that people want to invest in them—but we need to connect the buses to the stations as well. It will be a long walk to the train if we do not deliver that.

I thank the Minister for his recent visit to my constituency to talk to residents in Fishburn. I also thank him for understanding the need for what we do and for encouraging our local providers and councils to deliver more—anything further that he can do to encourage their efforts will be appreciated.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 3:16, 21 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. Before I thank the Minister, I will say that we on the Island are fortunate for many reasons, but one of them is that we still have a very healthy set of bus routes by rural standards. Even in my little hamlet in the Back of the Wight, in west Wight, where we are served by the No. 12 bus, we have eight services from Newport per working day and seven in the other direction, if my memory serves me. The last time I used the bus, and indeed our wonderful £2 bus fare, which I will come to shortly, was the week before last, when I needed to get to Carisbrooke castle for the wonderful Walk the Wight event in aid of the Isle of Wight hospice.

Being a Minister is often a thankless task, so it is nice to have a Minister who goes the extra mile for Conservative colleagues and, I strongly suspect, Members of Parliament on the other side of the House. I thank him for helping us to get the electric bus bid for the Isle of Wight over the line. We had to push quite hard, but I am delighted that, following a few conversations with my hon. Friend the Minister—he should clearly be my right hon. Friend —we could get it over the line. I am hugely grateful that he was able to support the excellent bid from Southern Vectis and Richard Tyldsley. It is a great little company. Bus drivers on the Island seem to be incredibly friendly and a decent bunch; it is always lovely to see them and I thank them for running such a friendly and reliable service.

Thanks to the funding that we are getting from the Minister, we have already started testing electric buses on the Island. We will soon have zero-emission buses covering route 1 from Newport to Cowes, route 5 from Newport to East Cowes and route 9 from Newport to Ryde. That will mean lower emissions and better air quality for the Island towns of Newport, Ryde, Cowes and East Cowes.

The Minister will also know, because we have talked about it on quite a few occasions, how popular the £2 bus fare is. According to Richard at Southern Vectis, it has undoubtedly got thousands more people a month using the bus network on the Isle of Wight. It was going to be a temporary scheme, but I was not the only Member of Parliament lobbying the Minister—many of us were, including, I am sure, my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis, whom I thank for organising this great debate, and my hon. Friend Jack Brereton.

I am absolutely delighted that we have been able to extend the scheme because it is really important to help youngsters on the Island to get around. Pensioners get free bus passes—we know about that—but if someone is on the minimum wage or a young person is starting out in their first job and they do not have a lot of money, taxis on the Island are really expensive. We have a vibrant bus network, so having a £2 max fare in one direction—£4 there and back—makes a big difference.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is talking eloquently about the £2 bus fare, which I utterly endorse. It is the simplest and most persuasive way of getting people back on the buses. The most important thing for me, certainly in my constituency and up and down the country where it has been brought in, is that the impact on people with a low income is off the charts. The ability in tough times, which we have clearly been living through for the last few years, to get to work for an understandable figure that is by far discounted on what it was previously is a genuine game changer.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I thank the Minister for his intervention. The last time I had a school visit in Parliament, some of the kids said, “Why should we vote Conservative?” I could have talked about the amazing apprenticeships schemes, but the first thing that came into my head was the £2 bus fare. If someone lives in Wales or in Labour-controlled London, fares are going up. If they are in Conservative areas, for the most part there is a fantastic scheme that helps young people get around.

In conclusion, I thank the Minister for finding the money to make sure that the Isle of Wight was included in his electric bus scheme. It will make a big difference and help to drive down emissions and improve air quality on the Island. I also thank him for the £2 bus fare, which has made such a difference and is getting people back on the buses, not least me.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

The Front-Bench spokespeople have 10 minutes each. I call the Opposition spokesperson, Bill Esterson.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:21, 21 May 2024

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I thank Jonathan Gullis for securing the debate. I thank also the other hon. Members for their contributions. It is fair to say that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and I do not agree on much, but I have managed to identify some areas where we do. I join him in paying tribute to bus drivers and other public transport staff who, as he rightly said, served through the pandemic—before and after. They put their lives on the line and some of them died. He reminded us of the important role that people in public transport play.

We also agree about the importance of buses in England. Millions of people depend on them and they are by far the most used form of public transport. Regardless of our policy disagreements, we can at least agree on their significance in his constituency and mine, so I genuinely thank him for securing the debate.

England’s crumbling bus network is symptomatic of the scale of astonishing decline that the Government have presided over. The statistics say it all. The bus network was deregulated in 1985, and there were 1.5 billion fewer bus journeys in 2019 than there were in 1985. Since 2010, 300 million fewer miles have been driven by buses per year and thousands of bus services have been cut. In the hon. Member’s patch alone, bus miles have halved in the last decade—one of the highest falls in bus numbers in the country, as he acknowledged. Some parts of Stoke-on-Trent are barely served by buses at all.

Although I welcome the better news that the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) shared about attempts to improve the service, this is a very serious story across the country. In 2023, an outspoken local politician in Stoke-on-Trent said that the state of the buses and the figures were

“damning on the poor performance of operators like First Bus” and that

“we need to…let current operators know they’ve been put on notice.”

Those were the words of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. In fact, he has been an outspoken critic of his local bus operators on multiple occasions, even going so far as to lecture Ministers that

“First Bus continues to cut routes” and it is

“time that First Bus does its bit”.—[Official Report, 13 July 2023;
Vol. 736, c. 489.]

The experience that he describes demonstrates the reality of bus deregulation under the Conservatives, and completely exposes the failure of the Government’s sticking-plaster approach to address the problems of a creaking bus network.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

If the hon. Gentleman is so critical, what would the Labour party do about it?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman anticipates the second half of my speech, because I will come on to that. Before I do, the criticisms by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North are a tacit admission that we need bold reform. On the question of Bob Seely, only Labour will be able to deliver that.

Despite the pleading of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, deregulation has not compelled First Bus to pull its finger out. Instead, it has robbed communities of a say over the vital bus services on which they depend. Micromanagement from Whitehall makes it ridiculously complicated for local authorities to access the kind of funding streams that he and Conservative Members were alluding to. It simply has not achieved results.

The current system has led to thousands of vital bus services across the country being axed. Bus services are a shadow of what they once were because unaccountable operators remain able to decide for themselves where services go and how they run. The Government preside over shockingly bad bus services. We have a Prime Minister who prefers to travel by helicopter and private jet, and who has no experience of the buses and trains that the rest of us use, so is it any wonder that public transport is in such a mess?

Turning to Labour’s plans for Government, we know that a reliable, affordable and regular bus service is the difference between opportunity and isolation for millions of people. Labour will give every community the power to take back control of their bus services and will support local leaders to deliver better buses and to do so faster. Labour’s plans will create and save vital routes and services, will end today’s postcode lottery of bus services, and will kick-start a revival of bus services across England.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

Will the hon. Member give more information about precisely how he will achieve those objectives?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am enjoying these interventions because they are prompting the next stage of my speech, which explains exactly what Labour’s plans are for Government. In our first term, should we be fortunate enough to serve—I take nothing for granted; I am not complacent about it—Labour would pass new legislation to support local transport authorities to take back control of their bus services. We would do that through a better buses Act, which would remove the costly, time-consuming barriers that restrict the ability of local transport authorities to control their bus services properly.

Labour would also reform funding structures to give local leaders more flexibility over bus funding and to allow them to finally plan for the long term—no more short-term cliff edges. Such approaches would address the difficulties that Conservative Members identified in their speeches.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

I am interested to see how that plays out in terms of consistency. We have a new North East Mayor in my part of the world who has just said that she is going to look at franchising, but when I sat in the Transport Committee last week, the union leaders in front of us were absolutely against franchising. I wonder whether there is any consistency in Labour’s approach.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

The short answer is that there is, because we recognise the need for flexibility and different options—[Interruption.] Hon. Members are reacting to what I say. Although we see the local franchising process as the presumed option, it is not the only option that will be available under a Labour Government.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

I will finish the point rather than taking further interventions. At the moment, those powers are limited to Metro Mayors, but we will expand them to every local transport authority. We will also accelerate the franchising process, cutting it from the six-year slog endured by Greater Manchester down to as little as two years. We will introduce local network safeguards to provide more accountability over bus operators and ensure higher standards for operators wherever they are in England, whether they are under local franchising or not. We are going to end the nonsensical ideological ban on new municipal companies, which this Government introduced in 2017. Labour’s plans could save up to 700 routes, with local network safeguards designed to benefit profiteering at the expense of yet more devastating bus cuts. Our plan is to create up to 600 new routes by expanding franchising powers, totalling an extra 250 million passenger journeys per year.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am going to finish answering the previous two questions by going through our plans, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. Thanks to our trailblazing Labour Metro Mayors, we know how effective franchising can be. London under Sadiq Khan has one of the most sophisticated and best integrated transport networks in the world, and Andy Burnham’s Bee Network in Greater Manchester is already improving reliability and boosting ridership. We want to emulate that in the Liverpool city region with the Mayor, and we are already adopting the approach of local franchising.

After the fantastic election results in the West Midlands, North East England, York and North Yorkshire, and South Yorkshire, there is an opportunity for other areas to join the Liverpool city region and West Yorkshire, as their combined authorities take the steps to pursue local franchising. Labour in regional government is taking bold steps to deliver for its communities, while the only remaining Conservative Metro Mayor—in the Tees Valley—refuses to pursue franchising, even when bus journey satisfaction in the Tees Valley is among the lowest anywhere in the country.

On the point about options, franchising will not be appropriate for every local authority. Labour’s plans are specifically designed to empower local authorities to use flexible funding and strengthened powers to make decisions that affect their own back yard, not through diktat from Whitehall. Our approach will give local leaders the tools they need to improve their bus services, whether through new franchising models, setting up new publicly owned municipal bus companies or significantly strengthened enhanced partnerships. That point is crucial and goes to the question asked by Paul Howell. There are notable pockets across England where enhanced partnerships between local authorities and operators have led to commendable levels of co-operation, excellence and improved performance. Where bus partnerships are working well, we will encourage them to continue. Labour is unapologetically pragmatic—not dogmatic—in its approach. We want to find the best solutions to the terrible state of our public transport system. There is no “one size fits all” approach, in stark contrast to the Conservatives’ ideological obsession with deregulation and privatisation.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am coming to the end of my speech. The Conservatives have presided—[Interruption.] Okay, I will give way.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

I remind the hon. Gentleman that he has almost come to the end of his 10 minutes, but it is his choice.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Chair has told me not—[Interruption.] May I seek your guidance, Ms Vaz?

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I thank the hon. Member for giving way, but I am slightly perplexed, as to what it is we are hearing that is different from what the Government are doing. On franchising, very few to no Labour authorities have taken up those powers, despite the fact that they exist. Actually, those other authorities that are not mayoral areas can apply to the Secretary of State for authority to do franchising if they so choose. We have heard—

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

Order. We are shortly coming up to a vote and we have not heard from the Minister.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I would like to know what Labour would do differently.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

I think I have understood the question. We are going to speed up franchising and we are going to make it a lot easier for people to do. It took over six years for Andy Burnham to get through the various hoops and bureaucracies in his way, and we have seen a similar problem in the Liverpool city region. We need to speed up the process. It is going to be the presumed option for any local authority that wants to use it, and that is a fundamental shift. Again, we are not being dogmatic but pragmatic.

Labour stands ready to empower local communities with the tools they need to take back control of their bus services, which is in stark contrast to 14 years of shocking decline in our bus network. What Labour will do, if we are in government, is usher in the most ambitious reform to England’s bus network in 40 years.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:35, 21 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. You wait ages for a debate on bus services and then there are two in a day. It is understandable and appropriate that, for the second time today, I rise to my feet in Westminster Hall to address the state of the nation in terms of our bus network. I will briefly set out, before I am probably interrupted by a vote, some key thoughts.

I endorse the comment by my hon. Friend Jack Brereton that franchising exists already. Local authorities can do this already—[Interruption.] As Bill Esterson chunters away, having been laughed out of court earlier on, the key point about Labour policy is that it is very keen to propose franchising but there not a squidge of an iota about money. The money that goes to the Mayors for the franchising is the key difference. What the Labour party is proposing is a franchise policy without any fiscal assistance. In reality that will result in a far worse system. If it was so broken, there were 13 years of Labour government when they could have changed it.

When the hon. Member for Sefton Central gets into government—if we were ever so misfortunate for that to happen—he will realise that what he is proposing is genuinely not a good idea without significant extra funding. Labour will not commit to this, as the funding will not follow, so a local authority would struggle to provide even the quality of the services that it is providing at present.

Enough of such claptrap. I move on. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for bringing the debate to the Chamber. It is entirely right that he set out that the covid pandemic has had a massive impact and that slowly but surely the funding situation and take-up is improving. If we look at base funding as a starting point, we have doubled bus funding in this country since 2010. We are in a situation where the degree of support is off the charts compared with yesteryear. We all accept that operators and local transport authorities have been working in a challenging environment over the last few years, but the key point is that there is great collaborative work happening locally between local transport authorities, bus operators and passengers. The regulatory framework put in place by the Bus Services Act 2017 and the largest public investment in bus services in all time—we have announced over £4.5 billion of support to improve services since 2020—are significant.

Over £2 billion of this funding has been allocated to every single local transport authority in England to help to deliver its local bus service improvement plans, which help to deliver more frequent, more reliable, easier to use and cheaper bus services. I want briefly to talk about Stoke-on-Trent specifically. Clearly, the way the funding has been used is an example of the kind of change that we are seeing. Stoke-on-Trent City Council has been allocated over £33 million from the DFT to deliver its bus service improvement plan, including an extra £1.4 million this year in funding redirected from HS2 through Network North. I am pleased to see that investment bearing fruit, with a number of bus service enhancements being introduced across Stoke-on-Trent. That provides better, more frequent services to help people to get to and from work.

I am not going to go through all the villages that have benefited and all the changes also that have taken place in the other parts of Stoke, as they were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, but the good news does not stop there. The local affordable fares scheme—the £3.50 scheme—is clearly something to be lauded. There is also the £2 single ticket, which is again subsidised and paid for by the taxpayer, arising out of the HS2 funding. There was talk today about funding, but not a word was said about whether that would continue under any Labour authority or any Labour Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) explained, this is the key thing to transform the ability of low-income people to get to work and get about in whatever community. It is such a transformational thing. That £600 million, again, arises out of and is continued by the HS2 funding.

I listened in great detail to all the speeches, and I noticed that many colleagues were keen to laud and be pleased about the zero-emission bus regional areas funding, known as ZEBRA 2. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, who has campaigned and repeatedly beaten a path to my door, managed to secure £4.5 million for zero-emission buses on the Isle of Wight with ZEBRA 2.

Self-evidently, colleagues were keen to extol the £3.1 million ZEBRA funding for Staffordshire, albeit that Stoke is not particularly affected. I am surprised not to be lauded for the fact that Devon County Council has received £5.3 million for zero-emission buses. I was genuinely stunned and amazed to receive no thanks from the local MP, the hon. Member for Sefton Central, for the fact that Liverpool City Council, the combined authority, received £9.4 million, and that the Government are funding zero-emission buses to a massive degree. As always, the glass is half empty and there is no laudable attempt to accept that a transformational difference has taken place with zero-emission buses.

We can also look at the local transport fund, which is utterly key for places such as Stoke. That is due to a decision by the Prime Minister in respect of the second leg of HS2. I am still unaware of the Labour position on that, as always, with no word on funding. That is £4.7 billion of extra funding, of which Stoke-on-Trent benefits to the tune of £134 million. I want to address some of the key points about Stoke on the issue of the cap. I entirely agree with the Prime Minister and not with the local authority leader, I am afraid. This is something that can be entirely addressed by local authority funding. As I am setting out in detail, there is a plethora of extra local authority funding that could be used in this way.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

What about all those cuts in 2010?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The hon. Gentleman talks about cuts in 2010. He does not seem to remember Gordon Brown selling the gold, bankrupting the economy, and a note written by a Labour MP that famously said:

“I’m afraid there is no money.”

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

What is the state of the economy now?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The hon. Gentleman has a brass neck to come to this House and start saying that 2010 was about anything other than a disastrous Labour Government who were rightly voted out. We will move back to Stoke, if I may.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North will be aware that the local transport fund has been transformational. The £134 million can be used for buses and to improve bus routes. It could also build on the substantial investment the Government have put into local transport through the transforming cities fund, where Stoke has again been awarded £34.6 million, as one of the many beneficiaries. I have twice touched on the point about concessionary travel. I regret to say that I manifestly disagree with the local authority leader, and sincerely hope he has the guts to reply, after more than 100 days, to my hon. Friend’s letter.

I am conscious of time and the incoming vote. I have touched on discretionary fares and other key points. It is outstandingly the case that the zero-emission buses will make a huge difference to their areas. I welcome what has taken place on the Isle of Wight and in the other local authorities I have discussed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight rightly said, it is not just in Conservative-run areas or where there are Conservative MPs; it is across the country. On the point about cash, we are aware of the importance of that and would encourage private operators to ensure that alternative payments continue.

My hon. Friend Paul Howell made a point about his constituency. It was a pleasure to go to the Fishburn Youth and Community Centre, where I enjoyed a delicious pancake on pancake Tuesday. Clearly, there is some positive news in terms of what Arriva is doing in relation to the X12, but I continue to want to see better work between Durham County Council and the individual provider.

This has clearly been a difficult time, with the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but we absolutely believe that Stoke is doing better and that, with the record funding that is going in, a better future lies ahead for bus services.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 3:45, 21 May 2024

I thank all hon. Members for taking part in today’s debate, and both the Minister and the shadow Minister, Bill Esterson, for their responses.

I extol once again the £30 million-plus for improving our local bus services in Stoke-on-Trent, as well as the £30 million-plus from the transforming cities fund. We are also getting over £100 million to improve transport, as well as an extra £200 million-plus across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire to fix our broken roads and pavements. That is on top of what was done by the last Conservative-led administration in Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which put a record £39 million into fixing over 30,000 potholes and resurfacing over 1,200 roads and pavements. There is also the bus service improvement plan, and specifically the £3.50-a-day flat fare. An awful lot of work has gone on.

I thank the shadow Minister for his kind words about where we do indeed have views in common. He is right that I said to Goldenhill Community Centre that First Bus Potteries was on notice. I was sick to the back teeth of time and again seeing services cut, even after Ministers had arrived to hear about our bus service improvement funding. That led to more and more people feeling despondent, despite the funding having been secured. I am delighted to say that new services are now coming in, and we are therefore seeing improvements. Independent surveys are saying that Stoke is second best in the country for value for money and fourth for passenger satisfaction. First is still on notice—I gave it until the end of 2024—but the direction of travel is right.

The shadow Minister was kind to point out, to the Whip’s annoyance, that I have not always been a party boy. I am willing to say what I think, be outspoken and push the envelope more than I should. He has made it clear to the voters of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that if they want a true community champion—someone who will stand up for their beliefs and values, who is not willing always to take the party line and who is therefore independent of thought, unlike many of the Opposition opponents I will face in the general election—they should vote for Jonathan Gullis and vote Conservative in the next general election.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered bus services in England.

Sitting suspended.