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10 Oct 2006 : Column 13WH—continued

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Three weeks later, it is clear from the radical speech of our right hon. Friend that there will be changes—for all the reasons that have been well rehearsed today. They include the massive decline in bus patronage outside London—down 11 per cent. in the past four years in Yorkshire—the unjustifiable rate of return that many bus companies enjoy in metropolitan areas outside London, and the many complaints that traffic commissioners receive about bus safety.

I shall not rehearse those reasons, but I make three points to the Minister. I represent the southern suburbs of York. Down the years, whenever Ministers were in trouble about the subject, civil servants would hand them a piece of paper saying, “What about York, and Brighton, too?” My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), whom I hold in great esteem, did not mention York, but discussed historic walled cities and poor parking. He may have meant York. As a York MP, I know that bus deregulation is no more a success there than in many other areas, although it is true that on the main routes into the walled city, there have been improvements, because of co-operation between the main bus company and a progressive council over the years.

However, in the rural areas near York which I represent, such as Wheldrake, Elvington and Dunnington, bus services have been cut. They have changed by the month, as in other areas. The services in the Fordland road area of Fulford, just off the main road, have been cut in recent weeks and there have been massive increases in fares. The people of York feel frustrated when they are told that their bus services are the future, which I do not believe they are.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles quoted a phrase in the historic speech made by the Secretary of State, who said:

I hope that the Minister will not just listen to the strong, powerful lobby from the more urban areas—the old six passenger transport authority areas—which makes unanswerable points. If powers are to be given to one set of local authorities and passenger transport authorities, it is hard to find a logical reason why the same powers should not be given to such bodies across the country.

We have a proud record of putting money into rural areas to improve bus services. In our early years in power, the rural bus challenge led to services such as the C1 service—I know my bus numbers as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey does—between Tadcaster and York, through such villages as Appleton Roebuck. Funding for the rural bus challenge has now been cut. We peaked in our support for rural bus services in 2003, with the provision of £68 million. That figure is now down to £54 million. The problems of deregulation are felt in many villages, such as those whose residents work at the designer outlet centre in my constituency, just outside York. If such people are given 40 days’ notice that a bus service is going, as they were in that case, their job prospects disappear because it is difficult for them to find other jobs in a rural area. If regulation is to return, it must apply across the country or there will be anger in many rural areas and a belief that we are only thinking about urban areas.

On travel-to-work areas, I am at one with my hon. Friend.

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Mr. Truswell: As on most things.

Mr. Grogan: Indeed.

The passenger transport authority in west Yorkshire, with its creative and visionary leader, the chief executive Kieran Preston, is coming up with a plan to expand its horizons. The leaders of not only west Yorkshire councils, but some councils in north Yorkshire, will come to the House in November to present a plan to Ministers to extend the passenger transport authority area beyond the traditional west Yorkshire area to such places as Selby, Harrogate and York. Bus services in those places are integrated with Leeds, the dynamo of the local economy, although they should be more so. There is a lot of debate about the choice between regions and city regions, and I know that Ministers are tentatively considering changes to the boundaries of passenger transport authorities. It would make a real difference if, like those people a few miles away over the west Yorkshire border in Garforth, somebody in Selby could get a metropass to go to the same place, namely Leeds.

I shall finally make a political point. Nothing shows the bankruptcy of Thatcherite ideology better than bus deregulation. There is an apocryphal story of the then Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, going to the north-east and asking how many bus drivers owned their own buses, such was the lack of knowledge of how bus services worked at the time. Social democracy, regulation and community involvement will provide the answer, and I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) that there is nothing inevitable about the decline of buses. Other countries in Europe have not had such massive increases in car ownership as us, and one of the reasons for that is that they have decent, reliable public transport and bus services. Let us not be pessimistic.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am sorry that I was out of the room for a few minutes when my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire spoke about the bus operator in my area. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) that we should not restrict our ambitions. Yes, regulation must be available to our local authorities, but we should also consider creating opportunities for community ownership, municipal ownership and public ownership, which exist in many European countries.

Mr. Grogan: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I urge the Minister to continue to be bold and to go down as one of the heroines of the Labour Government.

10.25 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate and the other hon. Members who have made cogent and valid points about why we must improve bus services. There is no doubt that in the past 12 months the campaign for re-regulation has gained pace. Ministers have said publicly that something must be done and we are all waiting to see what happens in the Queen’s Speech.

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I shall not repeat the many excellent points made by the hon. Gentleman, but it is clear that outside London, in both rural and urban areas, bus fares are up and services down. The public monopoly has been replaced with a private monopoly and our communities have not been served as they should have been. He mentioned the bus wars in Manchester. It was interesting that they seemed to stop during the week of the Labour party conference. I do not know whether the private operators were trying to ensure that Ministers were not made aware of the problem, but anyone who has been to Manchester recently—I was there last week—has seen what it is like on a daily basis, with a crazy system that serves nobody.

Buses are the cheapest, most accessible and most environmentally friendly form of public transport. We all talk about the environment and climate change, and buses are the cheapest and easiest way to get people back on to public transport. They can serve the communities that most need them: for example, in my constituency one third of people still do not have a car and therefore do not have a choice of how to get about. If there is no bus service, they have no means of doing so. I was pleased that at our party conference we were able to pass a motion committing the Liberal Democrats to the re-regulation of bus services. As the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, we want regulatory powers not to be restricted to PTEs, but to be available to all local authorities that need them.

There are means of paying for services without incurring costs similar to those experienced in London. I am waiting for the Minister to give me the exact figures, but I am told that something like £350 million a year of vehicle excise duty goes straight to bus operators. If we look at the profit made by bus companies—I do not say that they should not be allowed to make a profit or that they should be privatised—we see that they make a return of 8 or 9 per cent. in London, but 20 per cent. in Greater Manchester. There are clearly means of financing the re-regulation of bus services. Local authorities want and deserve powers to do so.

The hon. Member for Eccles mentioned the bus workers charter, which I have read. Anybody who has had dealings with bus services, as I did in my former life when I was responsible for school buses, knows how difficult a job it is to work as a bus driver. The days of bus conductors in London have gone, and the charter of the T and G—I shall give them a plug—is excellent. I hope that it is adopted once new powers have been awarded. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and, more importantly, to what is contained in the Queen’s Speech.

10.29 am

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on the eloquent and passionate way in which he presented his case. I note from his comments and from reading the parliamentary website that he has had a long tradition of concern about this issue during his time in Parliament. I read a number of his parliamentary questions yesterday and know that he has been a forceful advocate for his side of the story. He said that he had effectively initiated a debate on public transport. Members in all parts of the House support public transport; what we are talking about is how it will be delivered and continually improved.

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The Government produced a 10-year plan back in 2000, in which they set themselves the relatively ambitious target of increasing bus journeys by 10 per cent. That target was to be fulfilled by 2010. They also wished to improve the punctuality of services nationally, but against that they recognised the increasing decline of bus usage over many years, increased prosperity and car ownership, and the increased cost of travel on buses. The Government recognised that that target was unattainable and it has been revised twice since 2000. We now have a combined target of increasing bus and light rail usage by 12 per cent. and of increasing growth in every region. Although I have heard about the speech in Manchester, we shall see whether there is any real difference in progress.

I have listened with interest to the arguments. The hon. Gentleman said that there was a case for change. However, the debate is about what that change is, how we should achieve it and what we should expect from it. The previous Secretary of State said:

Like the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who initiated a debate on a similar subject earlier this year, I have sat through four such debates since the beginning of the year. As he rightly said, they follow a relatively tried and tested formula—that is, there is a diatribe against the current system and a demand for changes to the Transport Act 2000, but then the other side of the story comes through. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) pointed out that there had been substantial investment in buses, although bus life has declined, as he rightly said. A number of local authorities and PTEs have also deliberately set themselves against bus operators. It is therefore no surprise that we see the chaos that occurs occasionally.

Graham Stringer: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and would be interested to hear what evidence he has that PTEs in the six areas in England have set themselves against the bus operators.

Stephen Hammond: Both the PTE and the bus operator in the hon. Gentleman’s own area have taken full-page adverts in the local newspaper criticising one another. I would have thought that that would count as evidence.

I agree with the hon. Member for Eccles in accepting that no one model is right. That is one of the lessons that we should learn from this debate. The policy does not necessarily need to be as prescriptive as previously suggested. I agree with the hon. Member for Pudsey about the need for long franchises, which is true not only of buses, but of rail franchises.

Mr. Betts: Just to recap on what the hon. Gentleman is saying, is it now Conservative party policy to favour franchising for buses? If he wants longer franchising, he has to agree to franchising in the first place.

Stephen Hammond: We can have franchising within the quality contract.

Various other areas are available as evidence of co-operation rather than non-co-operation. I met the managing director of the Brighton and Hove Bus
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Company—some Members did not want to talk about that this morning—who wrote me a letter about the ingredients for success:

that runs

One of the problems in the deregulated market in parts of the country outside London is that a number of the bus companies are becoming increasingly frustrated at what they see as the failings of the local authorities, whereas the local authorities are frustrated at what they see as the failure of the local bus companies either to invest or to be responsive to them.

Meg Hillier: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would like to comment on the actions of Barnet council, and in particular Councillor Brian Coleman, a member of the London assembly, who is keen to remove bus lanes.

Stephen Hammond: If I understand rightly, Mr. Coleman has tried two experiments in Barnet, the other one of which is to remove road humps. That is also part of his strategy for Barnet, but it is not necessarily the overall strategy for London, nor is it necessarily the policy of this Front Bench. I shall touch on London later, for I have heard it described—as ever in these debates—as a paragon of virtue.

With the increasing frustration, I wonder whether meeting the operators and local authorities in those areas where co-operation seems to work better might help those frustrations to disappear. I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about whether there is an argument for ditching or improving the system. I await her response, but I am sure that she will bear in mind the comments about the world as it is and what the previous Secretary of State said about buses in Edinburgh, which is that the routes are

I have listened to a number of the arguments advanced for PTEs, and I am guided also by a National Audit Office report published in December 2005, which highlighted the fact that, on either method, the Government were unlikely to meet their revised targets of increasing bus usage. The NAO reported on the problems of administrative costs of procuring bus services, commenting that

That is an argument for some of the flexibility that has been mentioned in this debate.

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I hear a lot about London being a paragon of virtue. I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) about the encouraging movements and social enterprise developments, including Hackney community transport and—as I am sure she would wish to recognise—Ealing community transport. However, those of us in London do not necessarily recognise all the virtues of the model that are extolled to us. Bus usage is up, but fares are also up by some 40 per cent., although that figure hides the cost of the concessionary fare that Mr. Livingstone has introduced. Those of us who have been local councillors as well as Members of Parliament have noticed that, in order to fulfil Mr. Livingstone’s transport objectives every year, we often have to take money out of other budgets, most usually social services budgets.

Meg Hillier: The hon. Gentleman mentioned concessionary fares. Could he outline his party’s policy on free travel for under-11s, which gives a lot of families in London money back from their council tax and makes it affordable for children and families to travel on buses?

Stephen Hammond: I am happy to talk about pricing for families, because I was coming to that point. There are some pricing irregularities worth noting. Under this Mayor, London has done away with the family railcard. In my constituency, two adults and two children travelling one stop from Wimbledon Park to Wimbledon now pay £9.10 rather than £3.40, so I do not think we need learn any lessons from the Mayor on that. It is also true that London buses now average only 15 passengers and that the service is the most expensive per mile in the UK. We have heard other Members quote constituents; I could also cite letters from my constituents about problems with routes. Route 200 springs to mind; it is consistently poor on delivery and punctuality. The buses never seem to turn up.

As the hon. Member for Eccles said, there may well be a case for change, but different models may well apply. Before everybody starts over-extolling the London model, we should be careful and remember some of its major problems.

Mr. Truswell: Is not one of the key distinctions between the situation in London and that elsewhere that the people of London can vote for the services that they receive and the amount that they pay for them? People elsewhere cannot. Why should London have a democratic and regulated system when the rest of the country has a system characterised by deregulation and commercial tyranny? Or would the hon. Gentleman deregulate London’s bus service?

Stephen Hammond: The hon. Gentleman makes much of what Londoners may vote for. I hear consistently from my constituents that, given how much they have to pay for the Mayor, they will use their voting opportunity in two years’ time to change the situation.

Much has been made this morning of real powers to make a real difference, which is the clarion call of the new Secretary of State. Will the Minister tell us whether she agrees with her predecessor that a return to the
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pre-1986 regime is not an option? The rules on quality contracts need to be relaxed so that there is more designation of core and non-core routes. We need quality bus corridors that work, ensuring greater reliability, flexibility and quality—according to some indications, journey times are completed 10 times faster. Turning the clock back is not the answer; re-regulation is not the answer.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said that we need to treat the world as it is today. The world today needs additional flexibility, better procurement and quality partnerships. Will the Minister follow that route—if she does, I suspect that she will make a real difference—or will she, like so many of her predecessors, be remembered for making bold statements but taking no action?

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