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Surprisingly, however, the hon. Lady proceeded to say how jolly good what are, in effect, compulsory quality contracts in London were.

Mrs. Villiers: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Graham Stringer: I should be delighted to allow the hon. Lady to dig a deeper ditch for herself.

Mrs. Villiers: Throughout my speech, when challenged on this point—as I was on a number of occasions—I made it clear that in my view a range of factors were at work in relation to increasing bus ridership in London which had nothing to do with the regulatory structure and operation in the capital.

Graham Stringer: The hon. Lady fails to recognise that when factors such as subsidy and density of population are disaggregated, all the indications are that regulation in London has led to a better transport system and more passengers than can be found elsewhere in the country. What she fails to understand, and what I think every Labour Member does understand, is that with the good investment, good subsidy and real political leadership from which London has benefited, a regulated transport system will be a good system.

The hon. Lady also failed to explain why, given a system that works in London on those grounds—she did not attempt to specify which of them should be removed—we should have two systems in England as a whole. She did not explain why England should have such an apartheid system of transport, whereby London gets political leadership because it has an elected body, so it gets subsidy and regulation, and therefore a better transport system. Those are the horns of the dilemma on which the hon. Lady was caught—and I must say that over the years I have seen one or two of my Front-Bench colleagues caught on the same horns and have similar problems in respect of why there are two different systems in the country.

To understand why there are two different systems, we have to go back just over 20 years to when the then Conservative Government and Prime Minister launched a huge political onslaught on local democracy and local services. It went wider than transport, but for the purposes of this debate we should note that six metropolitan counties and the Greater London council were abolished, and we got a deregulated system. Although the Bill can be improved, one reason why I welcome it is that it attempts to deal with both sides of the problem—with the problems caused by deregulation and with those caused by the abolition of the metropolitan counties.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: The hon. Gentleman seems to be stuck in a time warp. He is a Labour Member with a Labour-controlled city council in a disproportionately Labour area, and we have a Labour Government. After 11 years of that Government, who does he think is responsible for the lack of authority and autonomy in transport policy, and the discrepancy between Greater London and the area he represents? How can that be the fault of the Opposition?

Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman thinks he has made a clever intervention, but it is clear that the Conservative Government put us in the situation in which we find ourselves now. If he had listened to me—and some other Labour Members—he would have heard that we have been less than satisfied with the progress that our Government have made in reversing certain measures. My Front-Bench colleagues have heard from me at length both in private and in public on these matters.

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Mr. Truswell: Is not the attitude espoused by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) typical of his party, in that it acts as an arsonist and then accuses the fire brigade of not putting the blaze out quickly enough?

Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend makes an acute observation about how the Conservatives behave.

What happened when those counties were abolished? The links between local democracy, local choice, local taxation and control of local bus services were broken. They were broken on the basis that although the people involved—Nicholas Ridley, who was Secretary of State, and some officials and outside advisers—did not know what would happen when deregulation of bus services was introduced, they believed that private, commercially operated bus companies would respond to the requirements of the travelling public by providing a better service. Indeed, in a small number of cases services did improve, but in the vast majority of cases they declined. We have already heard of the statistics, such as doubled bus fares, half the passenger numbers and reduced mileage, and they are well known in respect of areas outside London. What is less often expressed about the experience is that the bus companies did not respond as flexible, competing businesses serving the travelling public, but instead they became subsidy junkies. They responded to the amount of subsidy that was available, and they catered their services not for the travelling public, but for how much grant they could get. The Brian Souters of this world—he is from Stagecoach—go around saying how good they are at providing a service, but in fact they are always asking for huge subsidies.

Unless hon. Members know of the parliamentary question I asked last week, I would be surprised if they are aware that the Government believe that the subsidy outside the London area in the deregulated system is £3,500 per year per bus. The PTE group believes that for tendered services the subsidy per bus per year is £53,500—£1,000 per week per bus travelling in the system outside London. That is incredible. When there was local democracy, local taxation and control of services, for that amount of money we would have expected to be able to say what would be the frequency of service and where the buses went. Of course, that sum does not include investment in bus lanes and bus shelters and other parts of the transport infrastructure, which the Brian Souters of this world are always asking for while forgetting that they are being hugely subsidised. As a percentage of their overall businesses, they make more money and get a better return on their investment—although their buses are older—in the deregulated area than in other parts of the system. Overall, the bus industry is left with fewer passengers and we have twice the average bus fare of France, Germany and elsewhere in the EU before its recent enlargement. Therefore it is unsurprising if there has been a decline in bus fares.

Let me swiftly address the proposals, and some of the problems that I envisage and that I hope can be dealt with in Committee. I welcome the fact that the Government will leave the creation of integrated transport authorities up to local initiative; it will be for a local passenger transport authority to come forward and say, “We have a better scheme.” What lies behind that is the belief, for which there is supporting evidence, that if we transfer highways powers to a transport authority, and the
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transport authority can put in bus lanes and change traffic management orders for the whole of an urban conurbation, there is likely to be increased usage of buses and more bus priority measures.

It is understood that that is what is behind this proposal, but I have concerns about the process by which we get there, and at what levels Members and the electorate will be involved. On the process, in terms of addressing a medium-sized local government reorganisation—in the case of Greater Manchester it would involve 11 authorities and a number of functions—how adequate would the affirmative procedure and a one-and-a-half hour debate on the Floor of the House be? That does not seem adequate; we do not normally deal with local government reorganisation in that way.

I would not go the whole hog by saying that we should have primary legislation to make such changes, but I ask my Front-Bench colleagues seriously to consider making them by a regulatory reform order. Such an order would, as part of its nature, give people directly affected by the scheme the right to make direct representations to the appropriate Committee of this House. If that Committee thought the matter controversial or worthy of a debate, it could ensure that a three-hour debate took place on the Floor of the House. Anybody who witnessed what happened recently in Cheshire over the creation of two authorities will know that the reorganisation of functions and powers of local authorities is controversial, and that hon. Members and the public have views on such things.

That is the position as far as the House changing the law and the powers of local authorities is concerned, but what about the people? Although the concern of transport Bills and the Transport Committee is to improve transport, there are competing issues as to whether an area has bus lanes or not. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire mentioned the appropriate example of the debate in Birmingham about bus lanes. We would be saying to the local electorate that they can no longer vote directly for the person who will makes choices on those functions. One obvious solution is to have a directly elected transport body, some other form of election or a serious form of consultation before those decisions are made. In terms of filling the gap left following the abolition of the Greater Manchester authority and the other metropolitan authorities, the Bill is democratically inadequate; there is a democratic deficit in dealing with those matters.

I come to local authorities, because if those powers are transferred, this will not be just about the electorate. Bury metropolitan borough council or Trafford council, which oppose a congestion charge in Greater Manchester, can say individually, “We are a unitary local authority. We do not have to agree with what everybody else says. These are our highways. We are not going ahead with it.” If the powers are transferred by a simple process in the Bill, both Bury metropolitan borough council and the Bury electorate would have no direct say in what is happening. The case needs to be thought through a great deal more than it has been.

Mr. Greg Knight: In the light of the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the Bill, does he intend to vote against it?

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Graham Stringer: No, I intend to vote for the Bill, because as I said in my opening remarks, it contains many good things and it is moving in the right direction. However, I hope that by argument and discussion in Committee we can improve it by the time it comes back to the Floor of the House on Report and on Third Reading. I take the exact opposite view to that of the right hon. Gentleman, but that is not surprising, because he is in opposition and we are in government.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I am grateful for what he has done. Does he not accept that Bury will have representation on the local transport authority and will therefore be able to argue its case? It is not that the views of Bury will not be listened to, but it will have to take its chance, along with everybody else, in terms of developing an integrated transport policy.

Graham Stringer: I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course, Bury would have representation and would be able to make its case. The difference would be, first, that its electorate would be excluded. Secondly, whereas Bury currently has a veto—it can say no—it could in future be oppressed by a majority of nine to one. Such oppression could happen in other ways. At some time in the future the political complexion might mean that the inner authorities are in a minority compared with the outer authorities—that has not happened for a long time, but it has happened—and I would not want Manchester or Salford oppressed in that way.

What is behind these proposals is the fact that the Government are keen to try out congestion charging in Manchester—again, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire touched on this issue. The chairperson of the passenger transport authority has referred to the pressure put on it as the Government blackmailing it into having a congestion charging scheme, and I just want to say two or three things about that long debate, which it is part of this discussion, although not the main part. The reason why that is happening is that Manchester wanted to extend its tram system. We have got £500 million towards a £1.5 billion tram scheme and the Government have said, “If you want the extra £1 billion and, incidentally, some more for buses and trains, you will, in practice, have to have a congestion charge.”

I do not think that that is fair when one looks at the investment that is being made in London. The case for investing in the tram and train systems in Greater Manchester stands on its own, and a separate case would have to be made for introducing a congestion charge. Surprisingly, the figures produced by the urban traffic control unit in Manchester show that congestion in 11 of the 14 centres of Greater Manchester has fallen since 2001. I suspect that that is mainly because of the opening of the M60. The number of journeys into that area has also fallen, and the Government statistics on speed in those areas show that, with some exceptions, traffic is speeding up.

So congestion is not getting worse. In fact, the Government have agreed with Greater Manchester authorities in a public service agreement that congestion will not increase by 2012 and, on that basis, have agreed to invest in a new traffic-light system. In the foreseeable
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future, there is no prediction that congestion will increase, and the Government’s figures—I am grateful to Ministers for written answers on the issue—assume that the price of oil will fall to $50 a barrel. That is highly unlikely to happen, so the case for congestion charging in Greater Manchester has not been made.

Congestion charging is not an experiment that can be introduced and then removed. It is an investment for 30 years, and on the basis of what we know about traffic, the case has not been made. However, we do need investment in public transport.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, because he is making a plausible and persuasive case for local autonomy and for decision making in transport and other areas to be devolved as far down as possible. Is the conclusion of his argument that there should be a disentanglement between financial inducements that have been offered to local authorities, such as has been offered in Cambridgeshire to introduce congestion charging in Cambridge, and bespoke, discrete transport schemes? If that is his argument, I would probably agree with him.

Graham Stringer: This is worrying progress that we are making. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Transport Committee’s report on local transport plans, he will see that we found a lot of evidence—it is similar to the evidence that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire found—of unnecessary interference from the centre. I am strongly in favour of local democracy and having the right to tax locally and take decisions locally in line with what is appropriate for local areas. That principle is behind much of what I am saying. I am not against congestion charging in principle, either locally or nationally, but it has to be appropriate to the area and not introduced because the Government are pressing for it.

In five or six years of my asking, no Minister has answered my question to my satisfaction. Although I accept that London is a special case that has historically had investment in transport of 80 per cent. more per capita than the English regions, I have tried to find out why that 80 per cent. difference has gone up to 150 per cent. difference. There has been no answer to that question. At the same time as we in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Southampton are desperate for investment in tram systems, the investment in London is increasing and much of it, such as the £2 billion spent on the Metronet fiasco, is being wasted. That money could have bought us tram sets in at least three major urban conurbations.

I want to finish with two points. First, I thank the Minister for allowing me time and access to the Bill team. I had a long discussion with her and the Bill team about quality partnership schemes. I do not have time to go into the detail, but at the end of that discussion I was convinced that quality partnerships would not work. Let us start to think about what a quality partnership is: frequencies, fares and timing are controlled in the partnership but there is access for others. It will be extremely difficult to get an agreement between the bus companies and the authorities about who will run the prime service at 8.30 or 9 in the morning—the most profitable routes. Anyone who is running a bus service will want to run those routes, not the 11.30 off-peak route.

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Let us consider how access is organised. I understand, although I do not have quite enough interest to read it all, that the Minister has issued 70 pages of guidance on how to deal with that. That shows that quality partnerships— [ Interruption. ] I am happy to give way to the Minister, if she wants. She was just agreeing with me, I think.

Paul Rowen: On quality partnerships, does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Government have made two stabs through previous legislation at making quality partnerships work? They have not worked. Does he not agree that the complicated procedures in the Bill are likely to have the same result?

Graham Stringer: Yes, I do. That is the point that I am coming to. It will be difficult to make quality partnerships work because of access to the routes. Integrated transport authorities and passenger transport authorities will have to grasp the nettle and bring in quality contracts.

Ms Rosie Winterton: I just want a bit of clarification. As I said in my speech, the important thing about the Bill is that it allows registration restrictions so that if someone else tries to get access to the route and that undermines the partnership, the traffic commissioners have the power not to allow them to run along that route. I do not quite understand my hon. Friend’s point that others would still be allowed to run along it and that the quality partnership would therefore not work.

Graham Stringer: As I understand it, the registration restrictions are part of the answer to the problem that I outlined. I accept that my right hon. Friend has made attempts to deal with that problem, both by allowing traffic commissioners not to allow more registrations and by giving guidance on how such issues should be dealt with. However, when the different companies challenge the issue it becomes so complicated that the arrangement is unworkable. It is in the interests of the travelling public to move to quality contracts.

To answer one point made by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, let me say that the quality contracts are not anti-competitive. They transfer competition away from the road, where it is wasteful and causes congestion, to a tendering process. That is exactly what happens in London. Incidentally, as those who participated in the debate on concessionary fares last night will know, the contracts deal with that problem. If the concessionary fares are put into a quality contract, there is no need to deal with all the complicated calculations about what would have happened on a bus before the people with concessionary fares got on to it.

The real answer for transport in metropolitan areas, and in most of the rest of the country, is to move to quality contracts, which are close to the system in London. Many hon. Members have made points about the complications that might be caused by the approvals boards and by traffic commissioners making decisions. I cannot see any reason why traffic commissioners should be able to put themselves into a better position than elected councillors to make decisions about the quality of bus services. That simply offends against local democracy. Placing a statutory duty on the integrated transport authorities to consult interested parties, and
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to get the process checked by an independent body, would provide as much security against judicial challenge as anything else.

This is a fight against avaricious bus companies that have made hay while the sun has shone over the past 20 years. They have used a system that, to give it the benefit of the doubt, was set up to allow bus companies to respond to passengers, whereas in fact they have responded to subsidy. As all junkies will—these people are subsidy junkies—they will fight to keep what they want: their subsidies. I shall finish with a quotation from Brian Souter, cited in the Sheffield Star on 30 October 2006. He said:

it clearly is—

I think that it is the way to make the system work, and that the travelling public will benefit from it. I hope that Ministers and elected councillors on passenger transport authorities or integrated transport authorities have the stomach for a fight to get a better transport system in metropolitan areas and elsewhere.

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