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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) on securing this debate, on his contribution to the discussion on bus regulation and on recognising the importance of buses to Manchester. I can cheerfully say that I shall not disappoint him, as I am not going to say, "Yes, you can have all you want." The significance of this debate lies in a recognition—much overdue in many areas of the debate on transport—of the importance of buses.

Buses provide two thirds of all public transport journeys, and they are key to making public transport a viable alternative to the car. As my hon. Friend suggests, they also play a vital role in tackling congestion and, crucially, promoting access and inclusion. I welcome this opportunity to set out what the Government are doing to make buses central to our integrated transport strategy.

My hon. Friend alluded to the fact that buses can deliver and are beginning to do so. We have set the target of securing a 12 per cent. increase in the use of local public transport—buses and light rail—by 2010, while improving the accessibility, punctuality and reliability of services. The latest figures for England show a 3 per cent. overall increase last year, including London. Despite my hon. Friend's caveats, Greater Manchester has contributed to that, with bus patronage up 6 per cent. since 1999–2000. I congratulate both cities on that.

To dwell on the wider context for a moment, progress is already being made on fleet modernisation. The average age of the bus fleet has fallen from 9.6 to 8.1 years over the past 10 years and some 30 per cent. of full-sized buses are accessible for wheelchairs. As my hon. Friend will know, there have been significant advances in CCTV and other dimensions, not least real-time information equipment.

Of course, to achieve patronage growth and service improvement, a number of key factors have to be brought together: investment in traffic management, quality, partnership and the appropriate regulatory framework all have a role to play, as indeed does strong political leadership.

My hon. Friend has made the case for re-regulation, and I listened to his arguments carefully. I know others share his view. I certainly agree that it is essential that a city such as Manchester has high-quality bus services as part of a modern, integrated transport system. We are keen to help to create the conditions to make that happen, but we need to look closely at how best to go about it.

The fully tendered system, which my hon. Friend referred to and which operates in London, has produced impressive increases in bus patronage. Ken Livingstone has shown that buses can deliver a quality service and help to tackle congestion when combined with traffic
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restraint. I welcome that progress, but London is unique in its size and complexity, and it has one of the largest and most comprehensive urban transport systems in the world. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend will know, London was at a different starting point in terms of regulation. We have to think carefully before assuming that replicating the London arrangements is a necessary or sufficient condition for delivering better bus services elsewhere. It is important to recognise both that the existing regulatory framework has strengths and that that system has not been tested to the extremes or as much as could have been the case. The existing regulatory framework has the scope to encourage innovation—responding to customer needs, providing choice and attracting new custom. Many operators have risen to the challenge; indeed, Stagecoach Manchester won an award for its Unirider summer online ticket scheme at the 2003 bus industry awards.

Our experience is that the effectiveness of bus services depends on the level of partnership between local authorities and bus operators. Partnership has shown that it can deliver in some places, and we are keen to build on that. The Bus Partnership Forum has been helping to take this forward by producing many useful resources and sharing best practice.

Where that is not happening, the existing legislation makes provision for strengthening the hand of local transport authorities. The Transport Act 2000 offers a number of avenues for local authorities to pursue if appropriate. As my hon. Friend said, those include statutory quality partnerships and quality contracts. The latter allow authorities to plan and control bus services within a designated area. That can include fares, routes, timetables and driver training.

The legislative framework is already in place. The task is to make it work. We are keen to remove barriers to the introduction of a quality contract where the criteria set down in the 2000 Act can be met, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind words on the consultation to reduce significantly the 21-month statutory minimum waiting period before implementation of a scheme. We are analysing the results of that consultation, and we will shortly publish for consultation guidance on applying for a quality contract. That is important, not least because metropolitan and other areas have suggested that the 21-month period has been an impediment to the regulatory framework, and we are happy to consider that.

My hon. Friend kindly made much of the amount of money going into bus services in Manchester and elsewhere, in both revenue and capital terms. That is an important part of the mix of factors that have to be brought to bear. In December, we announced a £1.9 billion capital settlement for local transport—an increase of more than £200 million on the previous year, much of which is for bus-related projects. Indeed, we have approved £26.3 million for the Greater Manchester quality bus network.

I certainly take to heart my hon. Friend's points about social inclusion. More funding is being provided for urban and rural bus challenges. Greater Manchester was notably successful in the 2003 awards, securing £2 million for six new schemes, among them precisely the
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sort of schemes that fill the social inclusion gap to which my hon. Friend referred. It is not the fault of people living in communities on a particular side of our great towns and cities if, for whatever historical reason, the key employment activity on that side of town has diminished or entirely gone so that most economic activity is on the other side of town. We are working closely with operators and local authorities to fill those gaps where restoring a fully fledged route would not be appropriate.

I totally agree that it is vital that we get the best use out of the public funding that goes into buses in terms of achieving our objectives. We have been looking at that in the bus subsidy review and the current spending review, the outcomes of which are due this summer. I urge just a little patience on my hon. Friend in that regard, but it is right and proper given the amount of money going in from a range of sources, including bus service operator grant and the challenge funds, that we should look to see whether we are getting entirely the service and return that we need for that investment.

I entirely agree that reliability is crucial. I am aware of the service delivery issues raised by my hon. Friend with First in northern Manchester. As he said, some of the problems have been caused by staff shortages and others by the absence of vehicles. The traffic commissioners have a vital enforcement role, and they are currently working with the bus partnership forum on gleaning better data about bus performance. I hope that Greater Manchester passenger transport executive and First can work together to ensure that users experience better service levels in problem areas.

Reliability also depends on local traffic conditions and traffic management issues such as congestion. We are encouraging local authorities to implement bus priorities to help tackle that. My hon. Friend will know that there is at best a mixed picture nationwide on that, and I believe that keenly focused operators, sharp political leadership and such things as bus priority measures are equally important to securing the service that we need. In addition, the Traffic Management Bill currently going through its parliamentary stages contains provision to encourage the smooth flow of traffic in local areas and reduce disruption caused by street works.

In recent months, we have had discussions with the Greater Manchester authorities, and others around England, about the focus of their next local transport plans. I am heartened by the amount of common ground that we have found. Greater Manchester has made huge strides in recent years—not only in patronage, although I take on board what my hon. Friend said about that. The new night bus has been very successful and trials of yellow buses are showing that they can improve safety and cut congestion.

The Government's vision is of an integrated system that encourages the use of public transport as well as offering choice. Buses are essential in that regard, but we need the right framework of regulation. We are looking in the round at public subsidy for buses.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and his contribution, and I wish him well in his desire to see buses playing a greater, more efficient role in Manchester as they fulfil their role in the integrated transport system that Manchester and all our urban and
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rural areas deserve. Whatever discussions we have about the regulatory framework, it is absolutely clear to the Government that buses are central to all that we are trying to do, not just on public transport and integrated transport, but in terms of exclusion—
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