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30 Jan 2001 : Column 16WH

Bus Services

10.30 am

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): We hear a great deal about the role of Back-Bench Members. I cannot say how grateful I am to have the opportunity to raise the issue of urban and rural bus services, which greatly affects my constituency. I am pleased to have the opportunity to have a debate attended by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), as he takes great interest in transport and, I know, in transport in Staffordshire. I well remember an interview that he gave when he visited Stafford to look at transport plans being agreed by the county council in conjunction with district authorities and unitary authorities. I very much look forward to a constructive and positive debate arising from this opportunity to put the issue on the parliamentary agenda.

Why this debate and why now? In raising the issue with the Minister I want first to do what one does in a maiden speech and take a little tour around my constituency. Stoke-on-Trent, North is part of north Staffordshire and is in the Potteries. It is very much a place where urban areas meet the countryside. For that reason, it is important that the Government look closely at the way in which the urban network makes decisions on bus services. Clearly, when urban and rural areas are side by side, and people are travelling from one to the other and back again, it is crucial to plan transport where it is most needed.

The local bus company in Stoke-on-Trent is Potteries Motor Traction, which is part of First Group. It changed the service serving Hill Top, which is on the edge of Staffordshire and, as the name suggests, is a rural hill-top community and is about half a mile from Brown Edge. In the thrust to make services commercially viable, PMT removed part of the 69A service, which goes from Brown Edge to the Potteries, so that it no longer went up to Hill Top, where quite a significant number of elderly people and those who use buses to go to school and work live. The effect of the withdrawal of the 69A service left people in that rural part of my constituency stranded.

Those people did not think that that was right and nor did I. As any hard-working Back-Bench Member does, I subsequently arranged meetings with the city council and the county council, bearing in mind the fact that the community needed access to both rural and urban areas. I did a lot of research and contacted people in the area, who were clearly angry about the fact that the bus service had been withdrawn. When I met local authority transport officials, it was clear that the best that we could get--which I do not underestimate in any way, as I pay tribute to the work that the officers did--was four bus trips a week, two into the market town of Leek in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and two into the city centre of Stoke-on-Trent.

That was a huge step forward, but was nowhere near meeting the transport needs of people in Hill Top. The experience of the 69A led me to take a particular interest in bus issues in the past couple of weeks. We have a short-term solution of four bus services paid for by local authorities out of their transport subsidy. It seems that we cannot make a bid for a rural subsidy challenge grant because there are strict guidelines about cut-off dates. Because the route

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to Hill Top was, until recently, a so-called commercially viable route, it cannot be looked at within the context of the additional rural money that is being made available for rural bus services.

We need to look at that. When the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs made its investigation on the transport White Paper and looked at the existing subsidy that was already spent, it questioned whether there should be a review of that cut-off date at some stage so that local authority money could be used to make good the services withdrawn in that way. The time for the review may have come, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look closely at that. The four trips from Hill Top are just a short-term solution, but that is the best that we could do under the circumstances.

We now have the rural subsidy grant, which is most welcome, and perhaps we could in a new way in the short and medium term arrive at more flexible solutions for getting people from outlying areas to existing fast, efficient, reliable, quality partnership networks. It is too late for Staffordshire county council to include an opportunity for that kind of flexible proposal in the rural subsidy challenge bid that the Minister is considering and on which an announcement will soon be made. Things like this crop up, and even if the Minister does not want to reinstate the old bus service, will he look at other solutions, such as a flexible taxi service using the investment that he has already invested through the rural subsidy grant in outlying areas of Staffordshire, Moorlands? Could he not invite the county council to make a little additional bid that could cover the rural community of Hill Top?

We need to look at the way in which maps determine rural and urban areas. I have set the scene, but the outrage that I experienced concerning the withdrawal of the 69A service was nothing compared with the subsequent meeting that I had with city and county council officers. During that meeting, I was told, almost incidentally, that PMT had started to deregister other services, which affected urban bus services in my constituency. I immediately took up that further issue with the company and local authority officers. The reply that I received from PMT's chief executive in Burslem stated:

Further changes were made by PMT to service 86, which goes from Chell Heath to Chell, Furlong road and Tunstall. That loss-making hourly off-peak service has been withdrawn, and Stoke-on-Trent city council is considering whether to replace it. I campaigned strongly for that service because, before its introduction, we had no bus service to take people to a major health clinic in my constituency. It is not right to have NHS facilities that people cannot access.

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To the north of Stoke-on-Trent, service 92 goes from Newcastle-under-Lyme to Burslem and Brown Edge schools. That service has been withdrawn and replaced by a half-hourly service from Newcastle to Norton Canes, which divides hourly; one part goes to Ball Green and the other to Endon via Brown Edge. In effect, the route along Sytch lane and Church lane in Brown Edge has been withdrawn because of the small number of passengers using it.

I refer my hon. Friend the Minister to an e-mail that I received from the head teacher of the Brown Edge school. It states:

There have also been cuts to service 94, Newcastle-Burslem-Bradeley, and service 96, Newchapel-Furlong road-Tunstall-Middleport-Burslem. There has been a great public outcry, which was taken up by the local BBC radio station, Radio Stoke, in which I know my hon. Friend the Minister takes a great interest, having been interviewed by that station. I have a summary of the comments made by people who telephoned the radio station. The campaign clearly struck a chord. Similarly, the local newspaper, The Sentinel, has been campaigning for integrated public transport, for which I applaud it.

There is a sense of helplessness, which is best summed up by one of my constituents who wrote to me:

I want to find a way forward on all these issues, which are so dear to the heart of my constituents, and explore with the Minister how, through the existing legislative and fiscal framework, solutions can be found for people who have been left stranded as a result of those decisions.

After so many years during which there was no transport planning, the Government's plans for integrated transport are to be welcomed, as is the Transport Act 2000. I welcome also the strategy for urban renewal set out in the urban White Paper and the neighbourhood renewal policies announced last week. As a result of the comprehensive spending review, extra money is being transferred, but too often for additional capital spending, rather than revenue. The extra money being targeted on areas of greatest need, and the Government's response to the urban White Paper and to the local government standard spending assessment settlements are all part of the solution.

What advice and reassurance can my hon. Friend give me and my constituents, and the PMT bus company and local authority officers in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, that our problems are being tackled within the existing framework? While preparing for the debate, I read extensively, including the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs inquiry into transport.

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The Socialist Environment and Resources Association considers that many warm encouraging words have been heard about the need to address social exclusion, but, apart from the welcome proposal to cut fares for pensioners, few measures are directly designed to help socially excluded people.

In some respects, the Government have come a long way since the Select Committee inquiry. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that his report, "Social Exclusion and the Provision and Availability of Public Transport", sets out the agenda extremely well. For people who are socially excluded, those who do not have a job, the elderly, women who do not own a car, people who are retired and can no longer afford to drive or keep a car, people who cannot afford transport, and people who simply believe in public transport for its own sake, to cut down on the emissions that contribute so heavily to global warming, it is crucial that we match our concerns about social exclusion with the transport agenda when decisions are made.

That issue was flagged up by the Audit Commission report, "All Aboard", which reviewed local transport and travel in urban areas outside London. It is clear why local authorities want to support social objectives in transport. We know how public transport can contribute to attaining some of the key objectives and improve people's quality of life, by giving them access to family, shops, doctors, work, training and so on, with reduced congestion and pollution.

In the letter that I have from PMT, the company cites a further reason for withdrawing services that are no longer commercially viable: traffic congestion across Stoke-on-Trent is slowing services and making it more difficult to maintain their reliability. The company estimates that because of delays, it requires 12 more vehicles in north Staffordshire than were required five years ago. That is an absurd vicious circle. The more traffic there is on the road, the more difficult it is to operate a bus service, so the buses are withdrawn and more people use their own vehicles, thereby increasing congestion and social exclusion.

Car ownership is not particularly high in Stoke-on-Trent. One third of households do not have a car. A survey would show that we depend heavily on local bus services. Because of cuts to local services, we cannot reach hospitals and clinics. One the services that PMT has adjusted does not affect my constituency directly, but it takes people from Stafford to Newcastle direct to Stoke-on-Trent main railway station, on which a huge sum is at long last being invested. The station is still served by local bus routes, but we need as many bus routes as possible serving the main places that people need to get to.

I applaud all the work that has been done on quality partnerships, which has increased the use of buses. However, that has been done in a way that prevents people from getting to other parts of my constituency, which they need to access just as much as they need to reach the destinations on the agreed quality partnership routes.

How can we achieve good quality services when, almost on a whim, at six weeks' notice, a company can withdraw a service? As bus services are unregulated, little can be done, other than the local authority trying to make good that service.

The Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers has conducted an extensive survey of the occasions throughout the country when bus services have been

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withdrawn in that way. The report's conclusions are alarming. It states that the cost of replacing expired public bus contracts is rising well ahead of inflation, although it is less than it was last year. None the less, it is 16.7 per cent. and authorities estimate that by April 2001, they will have increased their local bus support by an average of 5.2 per cent. over last year's figures. They predict a need for further expenditure growth of 9.4 per cent. next year if they are to retain existing levels of service. Almost half of local authorities will have cut supported bus services by the end of the financial year to stay within their budgets.

I suspect that the issue is not isolated to Stoke on Trent. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) recently made clear in Environment questions that his constituency has similar problems. A great deal of priority is being given to the partnership routes, but other services can be withdrawn at whim. The revenue for local authorities is not keeping pace with the removal of services. Yes, more passengers are travelling on fast, efficient and rapid routes, but such routes cannot easily be accessed by people at the margins. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has already commissioned research into other aspects of bus services. However, could the problem to which I am referring be further considered? A pilot project might even be conducted in Stoke-on-Trent to consider how to deal with the withdrawal of services that are not affected by quality partnerships, but which are equally important to local people.

It is critical for us to consider all the issues. There are revenue implications even for quality partnerships. Local authorities can invest in traffic-calming measures and build new bus shelters, but further money is needed for repair and maintenance. If the shelters are vandalised, as has unfortunately happened my constituency, from where does the money come to repair them? People should be able to travel from Bradeley village, whose population includes a large number of elderly people, to the new wonderful NHS walk-in facility at Haywood hospital, which cannot currently be reached directly from Bradeley. As my constituents need to travel to doctors' surgeries, health centres, the main railway station, Burslem and Tuntsall town centres and to schools, we must deal with more than merely the north-south route across a 13 or 15-mile-long city. All transport needs must be considered.

I know that that is precisely what the local transport plans are meant to do and I look forward to working on the issues with the planning officers and the council. However, we desperately need a level playing field. The former metropolitan authorities spent a significant amount on bus services and public transport, but I am mindful that there is a disparity between the per capita amount that is available to the passenger transport authorities, and the amount that councils, including unitary authorities, can use for public transport. That gap must be considered and consolidated.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is currently engaged in talks with the Local Government Association about what action to take on the withdrawn services. Will he draw on the experience of the passenger transport authorities and consider how some of that expertise could be applied to unitary authorities such as Stoke-on-Trent and to county councils such as those of Staffordshire and Northamptonshire? The Northamptonshire branch of the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers has had a great deal to say on the matter.

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Local authorities cannot be expected simply to pick up the bill, but neither should the bulk of non-essential services be withdrawn for commercial reasons when they are as important as other services. We must consider revenue spending and the six-week notification period for withdrawal of services. We must have time to plan what should be done during the next financial year. I welcome the fact that the Government have shifted transport expenditure and other investment to local authorities, whose plans should operate in terms not only of 12 months ahead, but of three years ahead. The requirement for a bus company to provide to the traffic commissioner a six-week notification of the withdrawal of a service makes no sense, as it does not give any local transport plan or partnership an opportunity to get the key players together and sort out access for all the areas that need it.

I am sure that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replies, he will rightly refer me to the urban bus challenge. I see him nod. The £40 million extra investment that is being provided over three years is wonderful and I welcome it. It is far more than we have ever had before, but I point out that the amount currently available for revenue services in the Stoke-on-Trent area is about £270,000. That money is not ring fenced. I shall encourage those concerned to bid for urban bus challenge, but will my hon. Friend explain his timetable for the scheme? Will people be invited to apply, or will everybody apply and only a tenth of applications be successful?

I have a more fundamental point for my hon. Friend. Of course we want innovation, and I hope that the bus challenge funds will be used for innovative work that produces new solutions and addresses the Government's modernisation agenda. However, if the money is restricted and cannot be used to make good some of the essential services that are not affected by quality partnership and cannot otherwise be assisted, how can the basic minimum standard of service be achieved? Unlike my hon. Friend, I did not have the advantage of considering in Standing Committee the Bill that became the Transport Act 2000. However, should not we consider the contracts spelt out in that Act? Might not that be a way of ensuring cross-subsidy between the so-called commercially viable routes and other services that are equally important to local people?

I do not necessarily want an answer now, but will the Government think in detail about commissioning research and even establishing a pilot project in north Staffordshire, as I have suggested? Such work could identify optimum structures and contractual arrangements, as it already has done in respect of quality partnership routes. I am mindful that the Select Committee commented that the bus companies are

I am most grateful for having had the opportunity to initiate this debate. We rely enormously on public transport, throughout urban and rural areas. I know that the Government care greatly about public transport, but, despite the new legislation, we have still not achieved a means of delivering the local bus services that people need

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and the new reliance and dependence on public transport that we so desperately want. I understand all the problems and I feel for people whose lives are seriously affected. However, so much is on offer that surely my hon. Friend can give hope on getting some of the bus services reinstated, not only in the short term, but in the medium and long term.

10.59 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing the debate. I also thank her for her courtesy in giving me notice of her main anxieties. My hon. Friend has a long and distinguished record of involvement in transport matters. I listened with interest to her knowledgeable speech, and I shall consider her comments and suggestions most carefully. I shall respond shortly to as many of the specific points as possible. However, given the broad scope of the debate, it is important that I set out the context by making some general remarks about our policies for improving local bus services in both urban and rural areas throughout the country.

In developing and implementing a modern, integrated transport policy, we have recognised from the outset that bus services have a key role to play. Improvements to bus services have therefore been central to the policies in the transport White Paper in 1998, the Transport Act 2000 and the 10-year strategic plan for transport.

We have introduced major changes in the legislative arrangements for bus services. The Transport Act 2000 received Royal Assent last November and much of it will be effected in two days' time. The Act gives local authorities a range of new powers and duties to help ensure proper provision of public transport services and facilities. It provides for statutory local transport plans and bus strategies, which give authorities a clear strategic role in local transport planning, in conjunction with the private sector bus operators.

The Act gives local authorities new powers to establish enforceable quality partnership schemes, allowing them to determine the quality of bus services in exchange for providing facilities such as bus lanes, other priority measures and high-quality stops and shelters.

Authorities also have a new duty to ensure that local bus information is properly provided in their area--if necessary, by arranging it themselves and recovering reasonable costs from bus operators. There are new powers to promote joint bus ticketing, including through-tickets and reciprocal arrangements between bus operators, and to work with train operating companies on bus-rail ticketing.

We are guaranteeing a minimum half-fare reduction for elderly and disabled people on buses, with authorities retaining the freedom to offer more generous concessions. An estimated 7 million people stand to benefit from that change.

When a case can be made, subject to ministerial approval, the Act provides for quality contract schemes: the comprehensive tendering of bus services and networks to a local authority specification--an issue which my hon. Friend raised. Quality contracts are likely to be applicable only in cases of clear market failure. Such contracts will effectively confer local

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monopolies, and the Secretary of State has therefore set a high threshold for their introduction. My hon. Friend will understand those important conditions on introducing quality contracts.

The 10-year plan provides new investment in services through increased funding for rural transport and the new urban bus challenge--about which I shall certainly say more shortly--and, of course, additional funding for investment by local authorities in schemes to help bus services. On the latter, we have substantially increased capital funding through the local transport plan settlement announced last December, which is worth a total of £1.3 billion to local authorities in the next financial year. That is set to rise to £1.7 billion in 2003-04. Public transport improvements feature heavily in local authorities' forward plans. They include quality bus corridors, bus lanes and other traffic priority measures to assist buses.

My hon. Friend will have noted that, as a result of the recent settlement, Stoke-on-Trent's block allocation for implementing its local transport plan was nearly doubled. That is an excellent outcome, which my hon. Friend has warmly welcomed. It provides the basis for a major improvement in local transport provision in Stoke-on-Trent in the next few years. I emphasise that it is up to local authorities such as Stoke-on-Trent to find local solutions to local transport problems in the context of generous financial support from central Government.

The local transport plan settlement deals only with capital. However, the position on local authority revenue spending is also relevant to my hon. Friend's anxieties. That local authority revenue spending includes support for subsidised bus services and concessionary bus fares. In the recent distribution of revenue support, the standard spending assessment for transport has been increased above inflation. We took account of the pressures resulting from increases in the prices of contracts for subsidised bus services that are being experienced in many areas. An extra £54 million a year has been injected into revenue support to fund the mandatory improvements in concessionary fares.

The overall revenue support settlement was undoubtedly good. It constituted a substantial growth in funding for the third year running, and a national average increase of 4.4 per cent. in general grant for the coming year. That is in addition to the extra funding through the 10-year plan for rural bus schemes and the urban bus challenge.

When considering financial support for buses, it is also relevant to note that the Government are providing substantial sums--£300 million this year in England--through the fuel duty rebate for local bus services. We made an early decision to remove the previous Government's freeze on the level of rebate. Since we took office, fuel duty increases have been matched by increases in the rebate thus ensuring that they were not a burden on bus operation. We have asked the Commission for Integrated Transport to examine financial support for bus services and I await with interest the commission's interim conclusions on the scope and level of fuel duty rebate. I expect to receive them shortly.

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Let me deal more specifically with my hon. Friend's anxieties. I know how keenly transport issues are followed in Stoke. Indeed, I was recently interviewed about local bus services on Radio Stoke, by my old friend Sam Plank. First, I want to speak about the urban bus challenge. I was able to assure my hon. Friend when answering a question from her a fortnight ago at DETR questions--I am happy to do so again today--that I believe that the new scheme will offer opportunities for Stoke-on-Trent. As I said, we will support the best projects for which bids are made, and we intend to start the first round later this year. We have allocated £40 million for funding successful bids over the next three years.

The aim of the new scheme is to contribute to the regeneration of deprived urban areas by improving transport provision. Combating social exclusion is therefore a key aspect of the urban bus challenge. We are now finalising proposals on criteria and bidding requirements. Consultation will shortly take place with relevant bodies on those proposals. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that, before consultation, I cannot announce final decisions on the guidance today.

Ms Walley: Will my hon. Friend reassure me that he will try to ensure that areas where services have been withdrawn in the way that I described will not be ineligible for money simply because it will be used to replace an existing service, as is the case with the rural transport subsidy? Will my hon. Friend take into account that our bus services are seriously depleted, irrespective of the quality bus partnerships, about which I have no complaint? If services are withdrawn, and the rate of withdrawal is such that even more services are withdrawn nationally by the time the criteria are set, it is essential to consider providing a minimum standard of local services.

Mr. Hill: I hope to offer my hon. Friend assurances about new arrangements for the rural bus subsidy grant and the rural bus challenge. I hope that we will be able to take those provisions into account when we finalise our arrangements for the urban bus challenge. I fully understand my hon. Friend's point.

I want to give hon. Members some broad indications of our thinking on these matters. First, we envisage a wide range of projects that offer innovative and imaginative solutions to transport problems in deprived urban areas. Secondly, we will not be over-prescriptive in defining deprivation for the purposes of the scheme or the types of area to be served. However, we will expect bidders to describe in their proposals the characteristics of the area to be served and how the bid will contribute to tackling deprivation in that area.

Thirdly, we are considering providing that bids can be made under the scheme for any area that is not classified as rural for the purposes of the rural bus grant. We will also draw no distinction in eligibility between outlying urban areas and inner-city areas. That satisfactorily covers the anxiety that an area might fall between the urban and rural schemes. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend indicates her assent from a sedentary position. I hope that she, and Stoke-on-Trent, will examine carefully the potential of the urban bus challenge in the context of local needs.

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My hon. Friend voiced her anxiety about recent bus service cuts in north Staffordshire. She linked that with the development of the quality partnership for the area. I welcome much of the progress that has been made to implement the partnership. It offers substantial improvements--better-quality vehicles and investment in new bus service infrastructure--on several important routes. Having said that, I note the concern about recent cutbacks, which I know my hon. Friend has discussed in detail with the city council and the operator, PMT. I understand that PMT felt it necessary to withdraw the services in question because they were performing poorly and because problems in recruiting drivers were adding to operating difficulties.

Local authorities have an important role in subsidising services when such services are not provided by an operator on a commercial basis. I understand that, in this case, the city council has been able to find resources from its budget to restore at least some of the service withdrawals, though not necessarily to provide the same frequency of service as before.

My hon. Friend referred in particular to service 92. I am informed that that service is to be retained in a slightly modified form, though re-numbered as service 98. My hon. Friend also referred to service 69A. I understand that that service is to be partially restored at a reduced frequency, although, unfortunately, it will no longer serve some 50 homes in the Brown Edge area. I recall corresponding with my hon. Friend last autumn about the eligibility of Brown Edge with respect to rural bus support, and I would again suggest that the possibility be explored of a joint approach with the county council, bearing in mind the fact that the resources for such support are now to be substantially increased.

Ms Walley: I should like to inform my hon. Friend that that has already been done. As a result of that co-operation, we now have four bus trips a week instead of two. However, the real issue is that there is no way of reinstating regular bus services. I pay tribute to the way in which Stoke-on-Trent city council and, in particular, its transport officer, have done their best to make good the deficit, but they cannot make good the whole deficit. The problem is that this is a revenue matter.

Mr. Hill: I am pleased to hear that that initiative has been taken, and that it has led to at least some improvement in bus services.

In a broader context, let me say two things. First, it is sad but true that in public finances, resources are scarce. However, we have doubled the funding available to local authorities by means of support for local transport plans from this year to next, and that sum will increase. That is a significant commitment on the part of central Government.

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Secondly, as I have mentioned, we have also made provision for increased revenue support for bus services, which has been warmly welcomed by local authorities. However, in addition to such initiatives and support from central Government, there is also a role for hard-nosed negotiation at a local level. I offer that advice to my hon. Friend and to local authorities in Stoke-on-Trent and elsewhere, although I do not for a moment wish to imply that Stoke-on-Trent has been anything other than extremely rigorous in its approach to negotiations with the local operators.

I turn to the more general issue of the rural bus subsidy grant. As announced in the recent rural White Paper, not only are we increasing the funding for this grant by some 45 per cent. over the next three years, as compared with the past three years, but we are broadening its scope to take in services in and around towns of up to 25,000 people--as compared with the previous figure of 10,000. The grant has already been a success, with some 1,800 services being supported and patronage being increased: some 16 million journeys were made on such services in 1999-2000.

The criticism has been made that the grant cannot be used to support existing services. I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we have already listened to that criticism. I was pleased to announce on 16 January that we have decided in principle that up to 20 per cent. of the grant may be used to support existing services. We are now discussing the details with local government, and new arrangements will be in place for the next financial year. I am sure that the House, and local authorities, will welcome the additional flexibility that that measure will provide.

I again emphasise our commitment to the improvement of bus services and to carrying forward the measures I have outlined today. I do not underestimate the difficulties, and I take seriously the problems and concerns that my hon. Friend. has raised. However, there are already encouraging signs that the long-term trend of decline in bus use has been halted. Bus use in England rose by 0.5 per cent. last year--an encouraging increase when viewed against the background of decline in patronage over the past half-century.

There are also many examples of local growth prompted by the schemes that the Transport Act 2000 and 10-year-plan funding are encouraging. We shall continue to work closely with the industry and local authorities to bring about the continuing improvements that are necessary if buses are to play their full part in a modern transport system.

11.15 am

Sitting suspended.

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