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Mr. Paterson: This is all very depressing. I thought that we were going to have a sensible debate. We are talking about spending a titantic slug of public money more effectively. With this extra money the Minister and his colleagues in the London Assembly have increased bus ridership in London from 13 to 15 passengers on average. I am just asking whether that is a good way of spending public money. My colleagues in the London Assembly are seeing how existing subsidies can be spent more effectively and efficiently. [Interruption.] The Minister cannot misinterpret what I am saying. He stands up and says that the Government have done a great thing by increasing bus subsidies. I am quietly trying to look and see whether
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those subsidies have been spent wisely. I am suggesting that my Conservative colleagues in the Assembly could spend that money more effectively.

We should not get too hung up on London because, in many ways, the London model is unique. First it has had a big increase in subsidy by 548 per cent. at constant prices between 2001 and 2005. That is a 30p subsidy per passenger. The metropolitan areas have had their subsidy reduced by 2.5 per cent. That is a massive contrast.

Mr. Truswell: The hon. Gentleman is being uncommonly generous in giving way. Does he accept that another failure of the deregulated system in areas such as west Yorkshire is that it has created a virtual monopoly? When the passenger transport executive puts subsidised services out for contract, it invariably gets just one tender. Is that a good way of spending public money?

Mr. Paterson: Again we get regional variation. If hon. Members will let me make some progress, I will give examples of excellent partnerships, in some cases involving one and in others two operators. It can work. It would be helpful if, when the hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, he explains why that arrangement has not worked in his area unlike in places such as Hove, Oxford and elsewhere.

London has had a huge increase in subsidy, but other factors should be taken into account. London’s population has increased by 9.2 per cent., whereas in the metropolitan areas the population has declined by 1 per cent. and, if west Yorkshire is excluded, by 2.9 per cent. For huge numbers of people in London, using a car is simply not an option. Unlike other met areas, the city is filled throughout the day by commuters who arrive by train or tube. In London, 80 per cent. of the public use public transport, compared with the west midlands where about 30 per cent. of people use public transport. Furthermore, almost 12 million tourists visit London. That is more than a third of the total tourist traffic in the United Kingdom. Few of them have cars.

Ms Buck: The hon. Gentleman is gravely underestimating the impact that the additional investment and new strategies on bus policy have had in London. The result has been half a billion additional passenger journeys. From what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, we are led to understand that, if his colleagues have their way, the services most impacted upon will be those to the vulnerable—people who do not fall into his category of economic efficiency—older people, families and young people who have benefited by the equivalent of £1,000 a year through free travel, night services and services to areas that have not been best served by buses hitherto. Is it not true that his drive for efficiency will impact on precisely those vulnerable individuals and communities?

Mr. Paterson: I do not see that. I do not see what is good about wasting public money or what is bad about trying to spend existing sums better. The hon. Lady is talking about a nil sum gain. It is not a case of
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subsidies as they stand: good; any change in the regime: bad. My colleagues in the London Assembly are looking at spending the money more efficiently. I would have thought that she would endorse that, as would her taxpayers. London has seen an increase in its population and attracts many tourists. We must be careful because London is unique in many ways.

In some urban areas bus usage has been increasing. Eddington was interesting on this and talked about York. Those urban areas tend to be historic towns where car restraints can be easily applied and where there is usually a widespread cultural acceptance of the need for alternative transport.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I represent part of York and it is true that on the arterial routes in and out of the city partnerships have worked quite well, but in many of the villages that I represent, such as Wheldrake and Elvington, there have been cuts in bus services. There is the big controversy in the city about the level of fares. York is often used as an example, but there is great disquiet in the city about the operation of buses.

Mr. Paterson: That is a helpful intervention. I was deliberately citing the examples in the Eddington report. As the report was partly published by the Department for Transport and the Treasury I would have thought that the facts would be accepted on both sides of the House, particularly by those on the Labour Benches. The hon. Gentleman has detail on those services in York and it would be interesting to hear more. Indeed, Eddington tells us that York has achieved growth of 50 per cent. over the past five years, 30 per cent. of which was due to park and ride schemes, where one principal bus operator works in voluntary partnership with the unitary authority to run high quality services. The old city centre is obviously unsuitable for cars, so a tough parking regime has been imposed.

Eddington also refers to Oxford, which offers another example of how congestion can be reduced by a sustained and coherent policy. There has been a 30-year partnership between Oxfordshire county council, Oxford city council, bus operators and others. Growth has been achieved there, while it has been falling in other places. Bus use grew by 80 per cent. between 1988 and 2002 and it continues to increase. The local authority has maintained successful partnerships with two competing operators, but without restraining competition. There are park and ride schemes and the large student population must help to increase bus use, but the overall environment seems to work.

The Brighton and Hove system was cited by Eddington. The number of passengers has gone up by 62 per cent.,—equivalent to 14 million journeys—between 1993 and 2005. A unitary authority with distinct geographical boundaries operates a voluntary partnership with a single bus operator. What successful schemes have in common is that control and management of the roads and decisions about who runs the buses are in the same hands.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who sadly cannot be in the Chamber today, recently received a letter from Roger
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French, managing director of Brighton and Hove’s bus and coach company, which stated that

That happy pattern does not appear to work in rural areas, about which I have a little local knowledge, like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who has left the Chamber. My constituency has 98 villages and I think one of them has the greatest length of road of any village in England—100 miles in Whixall. People in rural areas who do not have private transport are massively and disproportionately disadvantaged if there is no public transport.

There are some good schemes and I was delighted by the Minister’s comments in response to the Transport Committee’s report. Changing the number of passengers allowed to travel in voluntary vehicles and changes relating to driving seem thoroughly worthwhile. Since deregulation, some imaginative schemes have been developed. I will not give too strong a plug to North Shropshire Community Transport Ltd., which is a registered charity and a company. NSCT does not operate buses on a strictly defined route; in effect, there is a dial-a-ride system. On certain days, a bus travels from Wem to Ellesmere and people in a broad swathe of country between the two towns can call it up. Such imaginative schemes should be encouraged, so I am pleased about the changes the Minister proposes to the size of buses and the number of passengers that can be carried by volunteer drivers. Those volunteers do a terrific job and their work is vital.

Community car schemes are also vital in areas such as mine, where the council pays 48 per cent. and the passengers pay 52 per cent. of the costs. When the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) replies to the debate, will she tell us whether existing subsidies could apply to community car schemes? A bus is not needed in some areas and a small car would be adequate. As I said, isolated people in rural areas are hugely and disproportionately disadvantaged; they cannot live a proper life, so imaginative local schemes are well worth developing and it is fair to say that they have blossomed since deregulation.

I take issue with the Government about their separation of funding, organisation and operation. Changing funding distribution from the Countryside Agency to regional development agencies has not helped. Local authorities close to the ground are much better qualified to decide where funding should be allocated, so I would like the Minister’s comments on that point.

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More control should be given to local government rather than to traffic commissioners, as has been said. In country areas, the county council is always seen to be the provider of public transport, but it has to conform to regulation by the traffic commissioners and to funding decisions made by the RDAs, which is unsatisfactory.

The Government are in trouble over disability rights. Since January 2001 all buses coming into service have been required to be accessible, which means they should be fitted with ramps and low floors, and space should be set aside for wheelchairs. By 2017, all buses in Britain must comply with those regulations. The latest figures from the Department for Transport show that only 47 per cent. of buses are accessible. There are exceptions: 100 per cent. of London buses are accessible and the figure in Edinburgh is 75 per cent. However, 38 per cent. of disabled people do not travel on buses or other public transport. They lack confidence in the transport system.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s two examples. In London, where accessibility is 100 per cent., the transport system is regulated and many Members are happy with that. In Edinburgh, although the system is not regulated, the bus company is municipally owned and there is 75 per cent. accessibility. Does the hon. Gentleman think some conclusions can be drawn from those coincidental facts?

Mr. Paterson: I cannot comment on that situation. I am merely asking how the Government intend to implement national legislation and why it is so patchy across the country. The hon. Gentleman may have a point; the franchise system may work in London, but the disability legislation is national and affects a large number of people.

Twice as many disabled people as non-disabled people have turned down a job interview, medical appointment or social engagement due to difficulty in using buses or other forms of public transport. That is a major problem for them. Fifty-two per cent. of disabled people have difficulty in getting to essential services such as a GP surgery or a hospital, so when will the legislation be implemented?

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 required buses to be fully accessible to disabled people, including wheelchair users. It was proposed that new large single-deck buses and new double-deck buses would have to comply by January 2000 and that all single-deck buses would have to comply by 2015. There have subsequently been changes to the legislation. When and how will all those requirements be universally applied?

Another aspect that has been brought to my attention relates to audible and visible announcement equipment. The regulations for change include provisions on systems to make audible and visual announcements of stations, but it was not possible to include such provisions in the regulations for buses because the technology was not sufficiently well developed at the time. However, there have been improvements, based on global positioning systems, and Transport for London says that the information systems will be fitted for all London buses by 2009. In
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the Government’s view, what is a sensible timetable for the rest of the country? Without those systems, it can be difficult for people with visual impairments and for some people with learning difficulties to use buses, so I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments.

At the Labour party conference, we heard that the Government intended to give local authorities more control, and they set out their policy in “Putting Passengers First”—yet another document. We need to put it in context. It is 10 years since the Government came to power and we are entering the final quarter of their much vaunted 10-year plan for transport. We all remember the glorious words of the Deputy Prime Minister when he said that their goal was

There has been much activity by the Department for Transport. We have had the 10-year plan, White Papers, debates on transport Bills, numerous strategic plans and now we have “Putting Passengers First”. We have had multi-modal studies, setting out transport priorities, which have then been ignored—a fraught issue in my case, because the A5 is not going to be dualled. We have had a drive from the Government to improve the quality of local transport plans. We have blue skies thinking. We have had Lord Birt and Rod Eddington.

So, what about “Putting Passengers First”? There has been a lot of surface activity. Is “Putting Passengers First” going to go the way of the previous false starts, the changed directions and the worthless promises? It is full of pious, self-evident truisms, and some extraordinarily banal comments.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab): I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s address to the House with considerable interest, but, apart from cutting public expenditure, I have not heard a single policy proposal from the Conservative party. What are his policy proposals on bus travel?

Mr. Paterson: At no stage have I talked about cutting subsidies. I have talked about spending subsidies better and analysing whether existing subsidies are being well used. If the right hon. Gentleman will let me make a little progress I will touch on the Conservative party towards the end of my speech. Is he thrilled to support a Government who, after 10 years in power, bring out what is supposed to be a great new radical strategic paper, which says:

It says:


We are told:

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I mean, why write this stuff? What does it achieve after 10 years? I am astonished that that he stands up and says what he does when, after 10 years, we are still getting strategy papers with that sort of guff in them.

Mr. Nicholas Brown: I do not see what is wrong with any of that.

Mr. Paterson: It is completely bland. There is not a single person who would disagree with it, but we do not progress. What we are looking for is some action. I would have thought that he would have been pressing his Government for that for 10 years. His Government set a target in their 10-year plan of increasing bus journeys by 10 per cent. by 2010. They also wanted to improve the punctuality of services nationally. Then they gave up. They recognised that the 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. We are changing again.

There are two key proposals in “Putting Passengers First”. We are concerned about quality contracts. There has been concern among passenger transport authorities that if they involve multiple operators in discussions, that might be decreed as anti-competitive. We are concerned about the test. We would not want to see re-regulation by the back door, throwing out some of the advantages that we have seen from deregulation. We are interested in discussing with the Government how the schedule 10 test will be made appropriate. We will be able to see that only when we see the draft Bill. We will have to examine in detail what is meant by a “significantly adverse effect” and a “substantial benefit”.

We are much more in favour of voluntary partnerships. I touched on some examples earlier from Eddington. We would want to look carefully at the tests imposed by the Government. Having looked at the examples abroad, we are not at all convinced that a huge increase in regulation would work. We are seriously concerned about what is being proposed in relation to quality contracts. We would look to see much more work done on voluntary partnerships.

Andrew Gwynne: Does the hon. Gentleman think that it will be feasible for an authority such as Greater Manchester to enter into in excess of 70 different voluntary partnerships with all its different operators?

Mr. Paterson: I cited cases earlier where that worked with more than one operator. It might not work for 70 operators. That might involve the creation of a new idea of a partnership. What one has to have is control of the roads and the road network, and of decision making in the allocation of bus routes.

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