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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) on securing this important debate. I was most concerned to hear of the problems that her constituents are experiencing with the local Arriva bus services. As she has pointed out, buses are central to an integrated transport strategy. They provide two thirds of all public transport journeys and play a vital role in tackling congestion and promoting access and inclusion. I welcome this opportunity to set out what the Government are doing to try to improve the quality of bus services in Merseyside.

Funding is an important part of the mix of factors that has to be brought to bear in improving public transport. In December, we announced a £1.9 billion capital settlement for local transport, an increase of £200 million compared with the previous year. Much of that is for bus-related projects, and £65 million of that settlement is for Merseytravel. Of that, £22.7 million was for small-scale integrated transport schemes to ease congestion, increase safety and create a better environment. Wirral's share was about £5.5 million.

Gorsey lane, in my hon. Friend's constituency, provides a good example of how those funds have been used to improve bus reliability. Buses on this corridor were suffering significant peak-hour delays. To address this problem, together with parking, access and safety issues, the lane has been transformed into a three-lane highway with two lanes for general traffic and a 920 m bus lane that allows northbound buses to bypass evening peak-hour congestion. Speed cameras, improved facilities for pedestrians, a new bus priority junction and segregated cycleways have also been provided.

Good progress has also been made on a range of key cross-boundary transport initiatives designed to enhance accessibility within the Greater Merseyside travel-to-work area. These include improved cross-boundary bus links between Wirral and Deeside, a Department for Transport-funded cross-boundary real-time passenger information system on a key bus corridor linking Runcorn, Widnes and Liverpool and preparation work on the extension of Merseytravel's pre-paid ticketing scheme to cover Halton.
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Since 2002, Merseyside has spent £1.3 million on bus priority schemes and £12.4 million on bus infrastructure schemes, implementing improvements such as seven quality bus corridor showcase route schemes, three bus way or bus lane schemes, and seven other bus priority schemes, among others.

I am concerned to hear, however, that the unacceptably high costs of travel are preventing people from taking up education and training opportunities and even jobs. My hon. Friend referred to the successful Job Link initiative, which I had the pleasure of hearing about when I was last in Merseyside. The Job Link network seeks to maximise access to the wide range of employment, training and work-based learning opportunities being created through the regeneration of Merseyside. The services have been developed in three phases to encompass the whole of Merseyside, and have received nearly £3.2 million.

The Job Link network has involved both fixed-route, timetabled bus services linking deprived residential areas of high unemployment to key employment sites, and new demand-responsive door-to-door services providing transport to employment and training opportunities for clients referred to the scheme from partner organisations such as Jobcentre Plus, Action Team for Jobs and JET—jobs, enterprise and training—centres.

In addition, Merseyside was selected as one of 10 pilot locations for the Kickstart initiative, with an award of £504,000 for Airlink. This scheme, developed in a constructive partnership between Merseytravel and Arriva, will significantly enhance public transport links to the Speke/Halewood strategic investment area and Liverpool John Lennon airport from the St. Helens, Prescot and Huyton areas.

However, as my hon. Friend points out, there are significant challenges facing Merseyside. While there has been steady progress to improve the reliability and punctuality of bus services, there have been significant problems. As she has said, bus patronage has dropped in Merseyside.

My hon. Friend mentioned the traffic commissioners. They have been reviewing their enforcement of registered bus services in conjunction with the Bus Partnership Forum. I shall be chairing a meeting of the forum on 29 November, when we shall consider a whole new approach to improving and enforcing bus punctuality. The Traffic Management Act 2004 will also help to make buses more punctual, as local authorities manage their road network more effectively.

My hon. Friend has argued the case for some form of re-regulation, and I listened to her arguments carefully. I agree of course that it is essential that areas outside London have high-quality bus services as part of a modern, integrated transport system. We are keen to help create the conditions to make that happen. But we need to consider carefully how best to go about that. We must think carefully before assuming that replicating the London arrangements is a necessary or sufficient condition for delivering better bus services elsewhere. The Commission for Integrated Transport has pointed out that the regulated bus market in Belfast has not delivered patronage growth.

In the deregulated system, some bus operators have risen to the challenge and won bus industry awards for innovations in ticketing, marketing, environmental
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protection and customer service. Our experience is that the effectiveness of bus services depends on the level of partnership between local authorities and bus operators.

Angela Eagle: Does my hon. Friend share my worries that local bus operators do not currently have incentives to do anything other than maximise their profits? They can often do that by minimising, or at least not having growth, in bus mileage or routes. All the figures demonstrate that. While I am not arguing for an exact replica of the London situation, does she agree that we could get better value for money if we had some form of route franchising?

Charlotte Atkins: We certainly want better value for money, because while I appreciate that some bus operators are doing a good job, others are not. Sometimes, the performance of bus operators varies significantly around the country, with good performance in some areas and bad performance in others. We must therefore do much more to try to raise the bus operators' game. I appreciate that it is sometimes not clear that those issues are being addressed by bus operators, who, after all, are concerned about boosting profits.

We want to build partnerships. I appreciate that there has not been much of a partnership in Wallasey, not least between my hon. Friend and Arriva. I hope that we can explore ways of creating a proper partnership. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened a new £5 million Arriva depot in Birkenhead last May. I hope that that can be a basis on which to build rapid improvements in bus services through constructive dialogue.

The Transport Act 2000 enables local authorities to set up quality contracts where that is the only practicable way of implementing their bus strategy. The Government cannot approve a pilot quality contract outside of the procedures that Parliament laid down in the Act. It is up to the individual local transport authority to make its case. As part of its preparations for the next local transport round, however, I am aware that
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Merseytravel is in the process of revising its bus strategy, which is currently out for consultation. That strategy contains a detailed assessment of progress in the development of Merseyside's bus network. I am aware that Merseytravel is considering the introduction of a quality contract. Quality contracts suspend the deregulated bus market and allow authorities to plan and control bus services as in London, where bus services are run by private operators under contract to Transport for London. A local authority can specify fares, routes, timetables and driver training.

The legislative framework is already in place; it is a question of making it work. We are keen to remove barriers that might prevent local authorities from considering introducing quality contracts when it is clear that the criteria in the 2000 Act can be met. A particular issue has been the 21-month statutory minimum wait before implementation of a scheme. We have announced our intention of reducing that to six months. We will also shortly publish guidance on applying for a quality contract.

Looking to the future, I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the Department for Transport is working closely with local authorities and passenger transport authorities to develop new ways of involving local and regional stakeholders in the making of decisions on transport investment and service delivery. As part of that process, we held meetings last year with Liverpool city council and Merseytravel, and more meetings are planned with Wirral metropolitan borough council. I shall visit Merseytravel later this month, and I shall be pleased to discuss its proposals for the future with its representatives in more detail.

The Government's vision is of an integrated system that offers users choice, and encourages the use of public transport. We need to work at a local level to ensure that we have the appropriate balance of regulation, partnership, traffic management and funding to make the delivery of public transport a success. I hope that we can achieve that in Wallasey.

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