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Yellow School Bus Schemes

1 pm

Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured the debate. It is an important topic, and I want to make the case for a wider introduction of such schemes, which have the potential to cut congestion dramatically in the rush hour. I understand that with one or two qualifications, the Government are broadly in favour of them, so the need for my powers of persuasion may be limited. Equally, I understand that local education authorities are by and large persuaded of the argument, if not the practicality in some cases.

We have made some progress on yellow bus schemes, but we need a substantial product. I want to encourage a greater degree of urgency in how we tackle the problems that school transport presents. You, Mr. Cummings, and many hon. Members throughout the country know that constituents regularly and rightly raise with us the concern that between approximately 8.30 and 9 in the morning, some places—Wirral, South included—are no-go or, at the very least, go-slow areas. On my patch, I could name many such places. For example, Heath road, Brimstage road around Barnston primary school, Pulford road and many more become extremely congested. It happens not only in the immediate area of the schools. Each school run fills up that precious commodity—road space—and each has a knock-on and cumulative effect somewhere along the line.

On Merseyside, for example, a survey found that 9 per cent. of all short car journeys were made for the school run daily, and that more than one quarter of all pupils relied on being driven to school. For some parents, dropping off children at school may require little more than a minor diversion on the way to work, but others will go substantially out of their way, and sometimes to more than one school. For many, the sole purpose of the car journey is the school run. It is an amazingly inefficient system that otherwise might be used on productive activities. I am not saying that taking kids to school is not a productive activity, but other outlets are available.

National surveys have found that 20 per cent. of traffic on UK roads at 10 to 9 in the morning is on the school run, equating to an extra 2 million car journeys. I have no reason to think that the figure does not apply equally, if not more so, in Wirral and the rest of Merseyside. Businesses and other road users who have no choice are frustrated by gridlock. Those living near schools find what they regard as their spaces occupied. Otherwise peaceful suburban streets are choked with traffic, and the effect is a vicious circle: parents become anxious about their children walking or cycling to school alongside, on or crossing congested and busy roads; and their instinctive reaction tends to compound the problems, because they also resort to using their cars. Given the pressure on the roads during peak hours, we must count every car taken off the road as a small triumph.

The evidence suggests that where yellow bus schemes have been introduced as part of a comprehensive strategy associated with the school run, there has been a dramatic impact. Figures for the first two phases of the flagship large-scale project and pilot scheme in west
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Yorkshire show that the average shift from car use has been more than 60 per cent., with one school showing a shift as high as 91 per cent. A primary school in Bradford reported a 30 per cent. reduction in cars outside the school gate, and of those pupils using the yellow bus, more than 60 per cent. previously travelled by car.

I took those figures from a West Yorkshire passenger transport executive press release, so they come on good authority. My hon. Friend the Minister has seen the benefits of that pilot scheme at first hand. I am told that parents, teachers and pupils are positively evangelical about the scheme, and schools are clamouring to become involved all the time.

Granted, the reorganisation needed to make the system work most effectively cannot be overestimated. The optimum effect might be achieved by staggering school opening hours. It would require a willingness from schools to work together to co-ordinate their start and finish times. Staggered opening times would cut costs and improve bus services by allowing the same number of buses to provide a service to many more pupils. Staggering would also allow pupils to access a range of school-based activities and disperse traffic on the school run from a current peak of 10 to 9 in the morning to a slightly longer but less concentrated period. It could have a temporary impact on congestion. I say temporary, because the proportion of school children driven to school grows year on year, and it would soon fill any spare capacity.

I have detected some contradictions in the approach across Departments, however. The Department for Education and Skills is encouraging local education authorities, including the authority in my constituency, to bring clusters of schools' opening hours in sync, so that students may have greater choice to study subjects that, if taught in every school, would not be sustainable. That is valid, but it does not help the problem of school transport. Other potential schemes may be able to learn much from west Yorkshire—for example, by using yellow school buses for school trips and community projects. I hope that if other providers were to make as convincing a case, they would receive the same encouragement as the pilot in Yorkshire.

There is some ambiguity in what I earlier called the Government's qualified support. First, in written parliamentary answers and correspondence, I have received more often than not a reference to wanting not to discourage children from walking and cycling by introducing yellow bus schemes. No one would disagree with that; it is a central tenet of the Government's strategy and a sensible policy for tackling childhood obesity. Children should take more exercise in the course of their daily routine. However, there is not much danger of discouraging walking and cycling when yellow bus schemes are directed at children who are driven to school. In the United States, buses are provided for children who live more than 1 mile from the school. With such a threshold in place, there may be no reason why walking should be discouraged. In any case, dangerous roads may mean that walking is not an option.

The second qualification made by the Government is that of being careful not to undermine the viability of bus services that are available to the wider public. I understand that, too. I imagine it being a factor—if no
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more—in rural areas, but it need not be generally applicable. In many areas, public transport during the morning peak is stretched on buses, trains and, where appropriate, trams and mass people carriers. If the object is to take traffic off the road, we must think about the best way of doing so.

The question with which we are left, but which may be not within the scope of this short debate, is what school transport framework do we want to promote. Will it be yellow school bus schemes, of which parents and children are in favour, as part of a broad strategy to tackle a range of problems, or the present mixture that pleases few and frustrates many?

My constituents' No. 1 concern above all others is antisocial behaviour, and it seems that one main benefit of yellow bus schemes is the discipline instilled in young people when they use yellow school buses. They do not need to be yellow, of course; it is the concept rather than the colour. Children travel with seat belts, have an allocated seat that they keep for every journey and have a regular driver. Those measures, modest though they may appear, can have a lasting effect on behaviour. Indeed, for some schemes, as the Minister will be aware, that aspect was the primary reason for their introduction. I think, although I cannot speak with direct authority, that that was the case in Stockport.

Although they are a small minority, some young people cause problems through their unruly behaviour on public transport and on dedicated bus services. I do not malign the people who provide the buses, but sometimes they are of poor quality. Double-decker varieties, for example, are often cheap, but are not well designed in terms of the supervision of children. It is important that a culture of discipline and respect is engendered in young people from when they leave to go to school until they get home after school. As the Steer Davies Gleave evaluation report for the Department for Transport made clear, the benefits of that are felt not only by the community at large, but by the kids themselves.

We are talking about a win-win situation. There is evidence that introducing yellow bus schemes has increased the number of children who are in school to be taught. I am told that in Bristol truancy was cut by 5 per cent. in the first six months of the operation of such a scheme. The headmaster of Henbury school in Bristol said that attendance had improved by 57 per cent. for the children who used the yellow school bus. The Government are rightly committed to reducing truancy, and this initiative could support other initiatives that they have put in place. A further side benefit is that yellow school buses provide a near door-to-door service, and there is less scope for young kids to find distractions on unaccompanied journeys to and from school.

Those are at least some of the benefits, which are being felt in what are small pockets geographically across the UK. I agree that a diverse approach should be taken to tackle the challenge of school transport, dependent on local circumstances, but I do not think that we have given enough power to the elbow of the school bus concept. We may need to give some leadership in that respect. I am not asking for a top-down solution to be presented to local authorities without debate. Obviously, it is up to them to decide
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how to spend their funding and to develop innovative schemes as they see fit. I know as much as anyone that the Government do not have unlimited funds. They have only taxes, and people do not like their taxes being raised to pay for other things without a consequential reduction in expenditure elsewhere. However, I visited a scheme in Wrexham that is funded from council coffers only, as I recall. I am told that another scheme, in Runnymede, has been financed through an innovative combination of parental contribution, private sector sponsorship—with a range of sponsorship levels to attract as many offers as possible—and use of section 106 planning obligations to compel new developments to pay towards the scheme on the ground that it would reduce traffic congestion. That is an example of something that has been done previously and could be done in future.

It can be a two-way thing. When businesses are relieved of sometimes crippling delays caused by traffic and there is a real productivity bonus, everyone gains. Medway council has committed funding, coupled with parental contributions, and is using it in terms of existing funds to deliver a small but growing yellow bus scheme. At one school, 60 per cent. of yellow bus users were previously driven to school by car. At another school, the figure has risen to 76 per cent. Local authorities, including my own in Wirral, need to find a way around the funding obstacle as well as applying pressure on the Government to be supportive.

Merseyside has a draft school travel strategy operating within the local transport plan. Its preferred option to walking and cycling is public transport, dedicated bus service provision being provided only

That may be a valid view on Merseytravel's part, but it may also require a wasteful catch-all extension to services—that is, if we assume that the reason for low take-up of public transport in some areas is that it does not serve all the areas that it needs to.

Much more creative thinking is needed. The scheme in Runnymede would be on a small scale compared with a scheme in Wirral and certainly compared with a scheme in Merseyside as a whole. It would be a big undertaking to introduce such a scheme all in one go, but there may be nothing to prevent smaller schemes from being put in place and extending even to individual schools. The start-up costs need not be prohibitive. Some bus companies can, for example, lease the buses so that start-up costs are reduced.

There are, of course, debates to be had about the range of provision for pupils and how much the parental contribution should be. Most schemes that I have examined charge about 50p a journey or £1 a day. I have no doubt that yellow school bus schemes have the potential to enable greater school choice to become a reality. However, what most concerns parents day to day is getting their children to school as safely, quickly and conveniently as possible. What concerns small businesses in my constituency day to day is the free flow of goods and people—making a delivery on time and meeting clients and suppliers. That is good for productivity and profitability. Of course, we want to encourage more cycling and walking to school, but this is not a zero-sum game. We can have walking buses and we can increase the provision of cycle racks, cycle paths
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and training, but we must do something about the growing proportion of children who travel to school by car. I am sure that, if there is a will, there is a way.

I am asking for greater urgency. Green shoots have sprouted across the country, and some local authorities and bus operators are making real progress, but those early developments must be nurtured and given more encouragement—not necessarily cash, although that would certainly help. The benefits are clear. Yellow bus schemes have the potential to eliminate much congestion, to end the school run, to improve air quality, particularly at the school gate, and to provide a safer and more disciplined way to get children to school.

It has been put to me that, in America, the operation of yellow school buses is associated with poor trade union practices. However, that is outwith the points that I am raising. A root-and-branch overhaul is needed of the school transport system, so I am glad that the education White Paper appears to put such a prospect on the table. I appreciate also that, to that end, nothing should be ruled out and nothing should be ruled in. However, the evidence is mounting all the time. I hope that the evaluation of west Yorkshire's large-scale pilot scheme will prove impossible to ignore when it is complete. Although I applaud what the Government have done thus far, we need to do much more. Traffic congestion is growing daily, and the number of children being driven to school continues to rise. I urge providers, small and large, and the Government to work together to come up with solutions to that pressing problem, including imaginative ways to fund schemes. That may be easier said than done, but doing nothing is not an option.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) on securing the debate. He was right to state at the outset that there is a lot of common ground, and I disagree with very little of what he said. I congratulate him on the powerful case that he made and on his clear enthusiasm for this strategy to tackle the problem. We agree on the analysis of its implications. I am therefore pleased to have the opportunity to outline the Government's approach to yellow buses and to place them in the wider context of the travel-to-school schemes that we are working to deliver with the Department for Education and Skills.

I shall start by setting out the background to our joint work with the DFES on school travel and then outline our research on pilot yellow school bus schemes. That includes the support, which my hon. Friend knows we are providing, for the pilot scheme in west Yorkshire. I shall also consider the funding of such schemes and the potential for expanding the yellow bus programme.

The joint work that we are doing with the DFES on the school journey aims to make it easier and more attractive for pupils to walk, cycle or take the bus to school, as an alternative to travelling by car. We want parents and pupils to have options when travelling to school—walking or cycling where it is possible and safe to do so and, for longer journeys, taking the bus. We want to encourage independent travel as far as possible, where that is safe and convenient.
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By encouraging children to get into sustainable travelling habits early in their lives, we will nurture a new generation of travellers who do not think twice about walking, cycling or using public transport as part of their daily routine. How children travel to school also has an impact on their broader health and welfare. The decline in walking and cycling which has taken place since the 1980s has coincided with a wider reduction in levels of physical activity by children of all ages, and that decrease in activity has contributed to rising levels of obesity in young people. The DFES and the Department of Health have a shared public service agreement target to reverse the upward trend in childhood obesity. In order to deliver on that target, we will need to be successful in making children more active in their daily lives.

Walking is already an important mode of travel to school, with around 50 per cent. of five to 10-year-olds and 44 per cent. of 11 to 16 year-olds walking. In the light of comments about there being very few children who travel much more than a mile by foot or bicycle at present, my hon. Friend may be interested to know that in the last period for which we have statistics—2003–04—of the children who travelled between 1 and 2 miles to school, a third of those aged between five and 10, and almost two thirds of those aged between 11 and 16, walked, and 4 per cent. of those aged 11 to 16 cycled. Cycling and walking—even walking to and from a bus stop—are obvious ways in which we could make children more active in their daily lives.

The travelling to school initiative was launched in September 2003 by the current Home Secretary—who at that time was the Secretary of State for Education and Skills—and the Secretary of State for Transport. The key objective of the initiative was to get a good quality school travel plan into every school in England by 2010.

A school travel plan is a joint initiative, agreed between schools, pupils, and local authorities, to improve travelling conditions around schools—to make it easier to walk, cycle or use the bus. The travelling to school initiative includes a number of measures to support and encourage the development of school travel plans. With the DFES, the Department for Transport has funded the appointment of a network of about 250 school travel advisers and regional school travel advisers based in local authorities. Their job is to support schools in developing travel plans, to provide advice on good practice, and to ensure that the plans meet the high-quality standards of the project. As a further incentive to schools to create such plans, the DFES has provided capital grants to schools which have produced agreed travel plans. The grants are worth about £5,000 for a typical primary school and £10,000 for a typical secondary school.

I am pleased to report that progress has been extremely positive. We have exceeded our key project milestone of getting 6,000 plans into place by the end of March 2005, and we are on track to achieve the level of 10,000 schools by the end of March 2006. To date, we have paid out more than £30 million in grants to support the development of travel plans. They have provided a range of sustainable investment in travel initiatives, such as safe and secure lockers, storage facilities and shelters for children bringing their bicycles to school, and improved bus access.
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Having set out the broader context of travel to work, I shall talk more specifically about the role of bus services, and in particular the role of dedicated school buses. We recognise that walking and cycling are not the best options for every journey. Where no safe walking or cycling routes are available, or where a pupil lives a long way from school, travelling by bus can be the best option, and it is certainly environmentally preferable to the private car. We are keen that a key objective of the travelling to school initiative should be to make the bus a positive choice for more parents and children.

Bus travel allows children to socialise with each other and to become independent and confident public transport users at an early age. Bus and coach accidents are very rare; they are the safest mode of passenger road transport. They also generally produce fewer emissions. School travel plans can contain a range of measures to encourage bus use, from engineering improvements around schools to revisions to services negotiated with commercial operators. They can build on the wider work being done by local authorities to promote the use    of local bus networks, including supporting concessionary fares.

I have explained some of the ways in which local authorities can improve the attractiveness of bus services for the school journey. However, as my hon. Friend is aware, some local authorities have gone beyond that and developed proposals for dedicated networks of school buses on the United States of America model, designed for the exclusive use of pupils on the journey to school. My Department was interested in exploring the potential costs and benefits of dedicated school buses in respect of encouraging more pupils to travel to school by bus. Therefore, in 2002–03 we carried out an initial evaluation of some of the early yellow school bus pilots, including schemes in Runnymede in Surrey, Hebden Bridge in west Yorkshire and Wrexham in north Wales. We also considered other dedicated school bus schemes. That evaluation exercise confirmed that well designed yellow school bus schemes had the potential to reduce car dependency in terms of the journey to school, and that they were usually popular with parents and pupils. Parents particularly valued the security of having a regular driver, allocated seating and services direct to the school gate. I share the view that they can have a positive effect on antisocial behaviour as well as on pupil safety.

The evaluation did, however, conclude that unless they were carefully designed, dedicated school bus schemes could have some unintended adverse consequences. In one pilot area, the introduction of the dedicated bus had the effect of driving out of business a key local commercial bus service, which was relied on for a wide range of non-school journeys. We also found
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that new bus services offered to pupils living only a short distance from schools could reduce levels of walking and cycling.

Dedicated school buses can offer considerable benefits but they also come at a cost, as my hon. Friend recognised. Our research suggests that while parents are willing to make some payment for dedicated schools buses, that is in effect capped at about £1 a day, which is unlikely to be enough to make them a commercially viable proposition.

In response to our evaluation report, which was published in 2003, we said that we would welcome proposals from local authorities for well designed dedicated bus schemes where they could demonstrate that they could be effective in meeting local transport and education needs. To date, we have offered £18.7 million of local transport capital funding to the west Yorkshire MyBus scheme, which is a large-scale dedicated bus scheme. Once fully implemented, the scheme will provide about 150 buses serving secondary and primary schools in various locations throughout west Yorkshire. As my hon. Friend knows, I visited there not long ago and I was very impressed.

Although implementation of the scheme is still at a relatively early stage, it has achieved a 10 per cent. reduction in the number of primary school children who normally travel by car to the schools taking part. The scheme is popular with head teachers, parents, drivers and children, and offers qualitative evidence of positive impacts on behaviour, attendance and children's personal safety.

We are aware that further dedicated bus schemes are under development around the country. As I have made clear to my hon. Friend, we would not rule out any of these being funded as major schemes in the same way as in west Yorkshire, but we have to be realistic about the level of funding available through that route. I take on board the point about other options for funding being available, but unfortunately very few of them are unlimited.

We are considering advice from regional bodies on their recommended major scheme programmes for the next 10 years. I cannot say anything further on that at present. However, we are keen for such options to be examined and, as long as they are clearly set in a broader context—of understanding their impact on commercial bus services, and of any perverse consequences—we would like to explore what possibilities there are for them to be extended.

In the broader context, yellow school buses can play an important role, but they are only one strand in a travelling to school programme on which we are making solid progress, and which chimes in with the objectives and analysis of the problems that my hon. Friend articulated.
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