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A further serious aspect of the parlous state of bus services in Worsley is the fact that a major service reconfiguration in the NHS will require constituents to travel further—this is similar to the point that was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright). The planned reconfiguration of in-patient services affecting women, babies and children in my constituency would require many to travel to hospitals in either Bolton or central Manchester. Salford has a higher than average proportion of people without a car—about 40 per cent.
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As I mentioned earlier, the figure is about 50 per cent. in wards such as Little Hulton.

As Salford council’s overview and scrutiny committee commented, the removal of obstetric services from the local Hope hospital would have a “significant detrimental impact” on our pregnant women and families wanting to visit them in hospital. Indeed, the joint committee of PCTs, which has considered the reconfiguration, was told:

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Lady is making an interesting point. When they closed some of the facilities at my local hospital—at one point, they were threatening to close the whole hospital—we made those same points. We were told that they were running a national health service not a bus company, so the matter could not be taken into account in health planning.

Barbara Keeley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. This is a new aspect and it is interesting to note that it appeared in our more recent reconfiguration discussions. As I mentioned, there was a report to the joint committee of PCTs. One or two of my hon. Friends have mentioned it and it seems that, in view of the reconfigurations, planning for further travel to hospitals will have to take place.

As I mentioned earlier, services to Bolton from parts of my constituency have been either cut or axed altogether. Council members commented in a recent submission to the Secretary of State for Health that travelling to Bolton would be very difficult from the western wards of Salford. Although NHS clinicians favoured moving services to Bolton or central Manchester, our current hospital, the Hope hospital in Salford, is much more accessible for many people living in Salford and other areas such as Trafford and Bury. It has excellent motorway and trunk road links and it can be reached by Metrolink trams.

I very much hope that those considerations, together with concerns about clinical issues, will mean that different recommendations emerge when the hospital reconfiguration is reviewed by the independent reconfiguration panel. However, as I touched on, the thrust of changes to NHS acute services is now becoming clear. In-patients and their families will undoubtedly have to travel further in future to use specialist hospital services and planning for public transport will now have to take that into account.

All these matters have become more controversial in Worsley, Salford and across Greater Manchester since the passenger transport authority and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities submitted proposals to pilot road pricing as part of a transport innovation fund bid. Many thousands of words have been written about those proposals in our local and regional press. Perhaps the main feeling is summed up in a quote from the Manchester Evening News:

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There were also comments on the need to develop park-and-ride schemes to serve those areas because drivers would be leaving their cars on the outskirts—something that was not done, I have to say, in many places when the Metrolink tram service was initially developed.

As MP for Worsley, I am very concerned that our local authorities are planning for road pricing when our public transport, particularly bus services, is still in such a state. Not only do we have the poor service that I have already described, but passengers have faced bus fare increases of 42 per cent. above inflation. On the future of our bus services, a poll in the Manchester Evening News found that 75 per cent. of people locally supported re-regulation, though as other hon. Members have made clear, none of us is arguing for a return to the 1980s-style regulation of buses.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport in a recent speech said:

My Worsley constituents need to see better bus services in place and working well long before any consideration of road pricing is made. The level of controversy generated by the idea of piloting road pricing brought to a head how people felt about that.

The Transport Committee stated that in all major metropolitan areas outside London the present regime is not working and, indeed, that current arrangements cannot be made to work. I have highlighted the example of a constituency in Greater Manchester where arrangements have caused such a decline in services that they are impacting on people’s family lives, their jobs and career options and the vitality of local shopping in town centres. We still have a mountain to climb to improve services for my constituents in the way that I would like.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) described our providers as avaricious public-subsidy junkies operating near-monopolies. I would not have put it quite that way, but I believe that some of my constituents who are trying to use local bus services may well agree with it.

On behalf of my constituents, I hope that the Government’s proposals in “Putting Passengers First”, the quality contracts, the quality partnerships and the role of traffic commissioners lead to better services. But I further hope that the Government and local authorities will continue to develop and innovate to achieve a bus policy framework that works.

5 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I rise to speak briefly in the debate, and I do so hesitantly because the document “Putting Passengers First”, from which the debate extends, essentially applies to England and Wales. I have listened to hon. Members speaking with great authority on these issues, with which hon. Members south of the border will deal on a daily or weekly basis. In Scotland, Members of the Scottish Parliament will tend to deal with the quality of bus services and so on, so I intend to stay out of that side of the debate.

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I should like to introduce an aspect that I have not heard any hon. Member mention and that is quite close to my heart: the manufacturing of buses, which should be included under the banner headline of a debate on buses. My constituency contains the leading bus manufacturer probably in Europe, certainly in the UK: Alexander Dennis Ltd—ADL. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary met the chief executive and other board members of ADL quite recently in Birmingham. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has visited the site—his surname is the same as part of company’s name, which is an additional link, I like to think, but perhaps I am just dreaming about that.

ADL, in its previous incarnation, was almost bust about three years ago. It was in administration, and there was a serious threat that all 1,000 workers would lose their jobs, as they did in some other sites across the UK. When ADL came in, some of the management were already involved with the company in its previous incarnation and some of them were new. The chairman has previously been the chief executive. They have made a remarkable success, and 900 workers are now employed on the site. They have quadrupled their output in the past three years. They are exporting to north America and to the far east and Hong Kong. They employ 300 additional people in Guildford and another 200 in after-sales service across the world in the places where they sell their buses.

When I take my children on the bus to school on Monday and Tuesday mornings, and if we can get the seats upstairs at the front, it is quite exciting, and I am always proud of the fact that there is a good chance that the bus was built in my constituency. ADL is at the very forefront of all the environmental improvements and modern developments, such as those for access, on buses. I am led to understand that it is the only company that has a double-decker product output that conforms to all the requirements of the new European legislation and the more stringent requirements of TFL. So ADL is doing fantastically well locally.

I spoke to ADL’s representatives briefly about the debate, and they have a great interest in the legislation, of course. Their interest is that a very large part of their market is in the domestic market of the UK. Although I understand that the manufacturers are very comfortable with the general principles that underpin “Putting Passengers First”, there is a concern that the new arrangements—I will not go into the detail, as that is not really for me, given that the arrangements are different in Scotland—might perhaps lead to some uncertainly among the five major operators and one or two smaller ones and therefore to a delay in orders.

It is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 jobs were lost in the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I understand that, on the back of the legislation that was passed then, there was hesitation, uncertainty and delays in ordering by the main operators for several years. That obviously led to job losses in the industry. There is no question of that happening on this occasion, but when any policy is reformed, there will always be some ambiguity and uncertainty.

It is very important for the 900 of my constituents who work at ADL and, indeed, constituents who work for bus manufacturers across the UK, that the new arrangements are proposed and executed by the Government and then by the local commissioners and
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local authorities in a way that removes, as far as possible, the concerns and ambiguities that operators might have, so that there is no hesitation in ordering. The future order book is what keeps so many of my constituents in jobs. Indeed, 900 people in my constituency are employed by ADL directly, but as hon. Members will know, there is also the knock-on effect on many jobs elsewhere in the supply chain to consider. Many components are sourced locally, and other local services are affected, too; for example, the workers buy their chips at the local chip shop, so the company has a big effect. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) mentioned the effect of buses on local economies, I think that he was referring to services, but I am thinking of the big effect that the manufacturing plant in my constituency has on the local economy.

To conclude, I hope that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary sums up she will allay the apprehension that is felt, as far as she can. It is not a fear or deep worry, but there is apprehension among manufacturers such as ADL that there may be transitional difficulties with local authorities and traffic commissioners. There are concerns about whether those bodies will have sufficient capacity to process the change, and whether there will be delays in the system, which would lead operators to fear that new investment might be wasted, as they could lose routes. Investment in the bus industry is the easiest tap to turn off. If a company wants to reduce costs in the short term, it stops buying new buses, and we have heard hon. Members speak about old stock today. There has been much investment in recent years, and that is a consequence of the partnership between the Government and the major operators. I ask my hon. Friend to allay manufacturers’ slight apprehensions about the new systems, if she can, and to assure us that the transition will be fairly smooth.

5.6 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): When I was elected to Parliament, I was delighted to be asked to serve on the Transport Committee. I had heard much about the chairmanship of the formidable hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and about the hard time she gave those giving evidence, even Ministers, when they refused to answer the question. I very much enjoyed the evidence sessions that we held when preparing our report on bus services. I did not have much personal experience of buses, as I lived in a village that had one bus to our local market town, and it came at a very inconvenient time because it worked around the school bus, which took the same route. There was also a weekly bus to York.

The Committee heard that London’s success in promoting the greater use of buses had not been replicated across the country, and we heard how, following deregulation, problems arose from the fact that buses chased each other on busy routes, whereas on other routes, bus services were withdrawn because they were not profitable. In some cases, less profitable routes were changed and followed other routes in the same town. We also heard how cuts made at short
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notice affected people’s working lives, their recreation activities and their shopping duties.

There are a number of problems in encouraging people to use buses, and one of them is access to information. When people come to London from Yorkshire, they use the tube because it is fairly user-friendly. We have more to do in helping people to use the bus services in a strange town—for example, there should be better information at bus stops. More electronic information is being provided to let people know how long it will be before the next bus comes, because people do not want to wait at a bus stop in the rain not knowing when a bus will arrive.

A move to quality contracts may well answer some of the problems, but the Government need to be careful to ensure that we do not feel the dead hand of regulation instead of enjoying the freedom of competition, which has in many ways led to improvements in certain bus services. It will be a challenge for the Government to address that problem, and it will be interesting to see how things develop in the areas where quality contracts are first introduced.

It is particularly important to improve the bus services in some of our large towns. Ten years ago, we were told that the answer to our transport problems was better light rail systems. However, in Leeds the supertram has been scrapped, in Liverpool the Merseytram scheme is not going ahead, and the Metrolink extensions to Rochdale and Manchester airport have not attracted investment. Buses will have to fill those gaps. We must also consider the role of the traffic commissioners. I agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who is no longer in the Chamber; he was concerned that local decisions might be overruled by unelected traffic commissioners. If traffic commissioners are a benign and positive force in the process, all will be well and good, but it would not be such a good thing if they were considered to be holding back the wishes of local people.

The UK has a long history of bus and coach manufacturing. Sadly, names such as Leyland and Duple are no longer with us, but we still have bus and coach manufacturing businesses running in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Scarborough. Plaxton was one of the main names in the post-war boom in bus and coach building, and its history dates back 100 years to 1907. It was traditionally a family firm that has been a major employer in Scarborough.

Frederick William Plaxton opened a joinery workshop in Bar street in Scarborough in 1907. He later moved to Marlborough street and took over premises that were known as Castle works and began building bodywork for private cars and charabancs. During the first world war, Mr. Plaxton took over the former skating rink in Foreshore road to manufacture shell boxes and wooden aircraft parts. In 1936, a large new works was built in Seamer road and soon Plaxton coaches were on the road all over the country. Production was halted at the Seamer road works during the second world war and the site was turned into a munitions factory.

Bigger and better coaches began to roll out of the works following the end of the war, and Plaxton began
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to attract big orders from companies like Wallace Arnold. In 1957 FW Plaxton died and was succeeded by his son, who took a big interest in the Plaxton building services side of the business. By 1970, the coachbuilding company had contracts all over the world and was producing 1,000 vehicles a year. Three years later the number had risen to 1,300 a year, accounting for a third of the entire UK bus force, but recession followed a few years later, bringing problems similar to those at ADL in Falkirk. In 1987 Plaxton closed down its Seamer road works and moved its site to Cayton Low road, which had gradually expanded over the previous 20 years.

Plaxton later became part of the Henlys conglomerate. The Henlys group, which not only manufactured buses but was involved in motor retailing, ran into financial problems towards the end of 2000—problems largely related to its operation manufacturing yellow school buses in the United States of America. It was announced in the summer of 2001 that Plaxton was to shut in August that year with the loss of 700 jobs. That is a large number of jobs in a small place like Scarborough.

The shock was compounded when it later emerged that many former and current Plaxton workers were told that their pension scheme had been wound up and they would receive only 30 or 35 per cent. of the value of their deferred pensions in the scheme. Plaxton’s former owners, Henlys, had gone into liquidation and the pension scheme had an £80 million shortfall. Some workers had transferred from Plaxton pension schemes into the Henlys scheme, and those already drawing a fixed sum Henlys pension would not get the expected increases.

A £20 million rescue package was put together aimed at saving 200 jobs, but the company that bought the firm, Mayflower, then went into administration and all its staff again faced redundancy. However, the firm’s management stepped in to save the firm and completed a buy-out. Since then, the firm has gone from strength to strength and is now almost back to 500 employees. Its chief executive, Brian Davidson, was named 2005 director of the year for manufacturing by the Institute of Directors Yorkshire and Humberside division.

I have been impressed by the enthusiasm, innovation and dedication shown by the whole team at Plaxton in pulling the market together. Despite heavy pressure in the early days from Spanish manufacturers who were receiving European subsidies, the customers have come back to the product made in Scarborough because of the quality of the fittings and of the product in general. It has led the way in innovation, producing coaches with lifts that can be used by disabled people, and the new Plaxton Primo smaller bus can take 27 seated passengers and 15 standing. It meets all the modern Euro 3 emissions standards.

I hope that when the Minister comes to Scarborough, possibly to open the new Scarborough integrated transport scheme and to enjoy the pleasure of driving down the still single carriageway A64, she will find time to visit the Plaxton coach works to see how a phoenix has risen from the ashes of the previous disastrous business. I hope that as it celebrates its 100th anniversary, Plaxton will continue to go from strength to strength and bus manufacturing will continue in Scarborough.

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Finally, I should like to say a few words about heritage buses. I am sure that the Minister is aware that many local authorities, including London, are considering imposing punitive levies to prevent heritage vehicles that do not meet modern emission standards from coming into places such as central London. I hope that there will be exemptions for those buses, because it is important that people who travel in the modern, eco-friendly, clean and easy-to-use buses can still enjoy the experiences of yesteryear in travelling in our heritage vehicles, which many enthusiasts still keep on the road.

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