Previous Section Index Home Page

26 Mar 2008 : Column 281

The hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) made an interesting contribution, notable for two things—his failure to condone under-age drinking and his indication that he makes election promises that he does not keep. I guess that that will be noted by voters at the next general election.

The Local Transport Bill covers a broad array of topics, ranging from commercial bus services to road pricing, community transport and local transport governance. It is not a technical Bill; it is a wide-ranging Bill that has a wide-ranging impact on local transport in this country. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire said, it is a proverbial curate’s egg; it is good in parts, but thoroughly objectionable elsewhere. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said that it is bad manners to eat an egg whole—it would certainly be bad manners to eat this egg whole.

On average, each person makes 1,000 trips each year, 40 per cent. of which are of less than 2 miles in length. Although it is true that people travel further and more frequently than before, a large number of those trips are over a short distance. The key to delivering successful local transport plans lies in delivering measures that generally and genuinely deliver a modal shift from cars to public transport. That can be achieved only through providing services and infrastructure that address the transport needs of the public. Put simply, the public must be taken where they want to go, when they want to go, in a safe and convenient manner—this Government have failed to do that at any stage during that past 10 years.

With those points in mind, I shall consider some of the Bill’s provisions in the short time available. It would amend the duties of local transport authorities in terms of producing and implementing local transport plans, and provides that the policies must cover all aspects of transport, rather than only transport facilities and services as currently required. Under the Bill, those policies must also take into account the protection and improvement of the environment. Considerably more detail must be provided on that requirement.

The key point is that a local plan can be effective only if it is truly local. It will not be effective if it is tainted by flawed national objectives and ambitions imposed by national Government on local transport plans, as we have seen happen so often in the past 10 years. In its scrutiny of the draft Bill, the Transport Committee rightly made the point that the over-prescription of guidance has increased the costs and production time of local transport plans without creating any greater certainty about funding fulfilment or delivery. We want to avoid a situation in which the Government provide extra funding through local transport plans and seek to override local aspects of such plans—we saw that happen with the transport innovation fund. That is ill advised, as several of my hon. Friends pointed out in the debate.

The Bill would give the Secretary of State the power in future to increase the number of passenger transport authorities—or integrated transport authorities as they will be known. The new integrated transport authorities will have the sole responsibility for writing local transport plans in their area. It will be important to understand the new role and functions of those bodies and to determine whether the change of name is anything more than a cosmetic exercise.

26 Mar 2008 : Column 282

A further element of transport governance that the Bill will change is the role of traffic commissioners. The Bill seeks to establish a new statutory office of senior traffic commissioner. In theory, that could help make more effective the important work done by the traffic commissioner network, but there must be doubts surrounding the extent to which the Secretary of State can issue guidance to the senior traffic commissioner who can then issue directions and guidance to other traffic commissioners. It will be important to know the exact extension of the power of the traffic commissioners and whether they are suitable to undertake their new roles. Indeed, the Government must confirm to what extent they expect traffic commissioners to have a role in economic regulation.

Several hon. Members have mentioned road pricing. The Government’s position on that seems to change from ministerial speech to ministerial speech. We have U-turn followed by U-turn, so we can truly say that the Government are running around in circles. The Government’s position in the Bill was excellently explored by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet earlier—they dither on road pricing, but there cannot be any confusion about our policy on it. We have been clear from the outset that we agree with the 1.8 million people who signed the Downing street petition, and we will oppose any proposals for a spy in the sky national road pricing scheme.

The Minister claimed several times that we were not listening to the people. Well, on this issue the Minister and her Government are clearly not listening to them. A national scheme is unpopular and unrealistic, but I suspect that road user charging or an increased use of tolls may well be part of the Government’s strategy for tackling congestion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North made clear, these schemes must be local and require local consent and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire pointed out, they must not be used as the Trojan horse for a national road pricing scheme.

The Bill proposes to establish on a statutory footing a passenger watchdog for buses. In principle, we welcome that move, as we have seen that it works well in the rail industry. The key question is what form the new body will take, now that the Government consultation on the subject has ended. The National Consumer Council is right to make it clear that the body should have a remit to improve bus travel and advocacy. We support that position.

We have heard several notable contributions on community transport. The Bill aims to support the further development of the community transport sector by removing unnecessary restrictions and by strengthening the system for issuing permits to community transport providers. That is a welcome move and any proposals that help to strengthen the community transport sector will enjoy our support.

The key part of the Bill is about quality partnerships and contracts. The Government have recognised that the fundamental driver behind improvements to local bus services is an effective partnership between the local authority and the operator. In the draft consultation, “Putting Passengers First”, the Government said:

That can be seen up and down the country. We have cited the case several times already, but one needs merely to ask operators in Brighton and Hove how
26 Mar 2008 : Column 283
they have achieved 50 per cent. growth and they will say that it is down to a good working partnership with the local authority.

Operators invest in higher quality services, new vehicles and staff training, and local authorities invest in traffic management schemes to give buses priority and to provide better bus stations, shelters and passenger information.

Norman Baker: There are indeed effective partnerships, but what is the hon. Gentleman’s answer for the ineffective partnerships or those that are entirely absent?

Stephen Hammond: Clearly, problems in the bus industry need to be addressed. It is absolutely clear that re-regulation by local authorities that imposes on operators or local communities something that might or might not be appropriate is not the way forward.

Mr. Betts: The hon. Gentleman comes from a party that is supposed to favour local democracy and empower local communities. He has just talked about local authorities imposing on communities. What happens if there is demand in a local community for the introduction of a quality contract? Would the hon. Gentleman allow the community to have its say?

Stephen Hammond: The hon. Gentleman talks about localism. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet answered that point earlier. Localism is not just about local authorities; it can be about local communities, too.

Bus patronage outside London is declining, but it has been declining since 1945—a long time before the bus industry was deregulated in the 1980s. In fact, deregulation saw a stabilisation of bus patronage. Many hon. Members will remember that the last major transport legislation in 2000 failed to deliver the rail capacity increases that we needed, delivered only two out of 25 tram schemes and failed in its road objectives. Many people across the House should be concerned that this Bill will follow that history and will be an equally huge failure.

We support some parts of the Bill, but its major thrust causes us concern. Our reasoned amendment says to the Government, “Take the Bill away. Think harder about those sections.” Our position is perfectly right, proper and principled, in contrast to the feigned surprise of the Minister. Our amendment will ensure that the Bill can be improved, as it should be, and I urge hon. Members to support the amendment.

6.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), a fellow London MP. We enjoy excellent bus services in this great capital city, courtesy of TFL and on behalf of Mayor Livingstone and the citizens of London, in contrast to the various bus experiences that we have heard from hon. Members from different parts of the country.

26 Mar 2008 : Column 284

This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate on important legislation. As has been said, the purpose of the Bill is to empower local authorities not only to transform local transport in their areas but to provide transport that is better designed around the needs of their communities. Many right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the importance of buses to their constituents and the progress that has been made in the past decade on reversing the downward trend in patronage that this Government inherited in 1997.

Kerry McCarthy: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jim Fitzpatrick: If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall make some progress. If I have some time at the end, I shall be happy to give way. I have a 50-minute speech to fit into 15 minutes, which will not be possible.

Hon. Members have also spoken about the need to do still more to empower their local communities, so that people get the quality of service that they deserve. The Bill will allow local authorities to do just that.

I shall respond to some of the points made in the debate before making some concluding remarks to reinforce why the Bill should be read a Second time and why the Opposition’s amendment should be voted down. My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), who spoke first after the Front-Bench speeches, said that he would speak briefly, but he spoke strongly about his constituents’ experiences, including those of his visitors today from Gateshead. He explained in detail why he supported the Bill.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, agreed with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that the Tory position of opposing the Bill through their amendment is quite incredible. Between them, they very effectively exposed the weakness of the Conservative position. The Opposition say that regulation plays no part in London’s success, but will not commit themselves to deregulating. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) cites Brighton and Hove as a good example of success, but omits to mention that Brighton and Hove council supports the Bill, as do many other local authorities including, I believe, Conservative ones.

The hon. Member for Lewes made a number of points. He stated that unelected members should not be given a vote on the integrated transport authorities. The intention behind the Bill is that it will be for authorities in an area to review whether an ITA’s membership should include persons other than representatives of the local authorities that make up the ITA area, and what the voting arrangements should be. In making appointments to an ITA, authorities will be bound by the political balance requirements of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and other relevant legislation.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the traffic commissioners have the expertise to take on their new bus roles. I am sure that he is aware that they already have significant powers in the bus sector. For example, they have the power to issue operator licences in the bus and coach sector. Details of all local bus services must be registered with the local traffic commissioner, and they have a remit to investigate if bus services have been registered but are not being run properly and to take action against operators when things are going wrong.
26 Mar 2008 : Column 285
They will not be taking on new work in a vacuum; they are highly professional decision makers, experienced in applying the law, and have earned the respect of the industry through their expertise and experience.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Bill will change bus services that are working well. He and other hon. Members mentioned Brighton and Hove, Cambridge, Norfolk and so on. This is an enabling Bill, giving local authorities the powers that they need to improve their bus services. As such, there is no requirement on authorities to make any changes. If they feel that bus services in their area are working well, they will simply not use the powers available to them. Of course, at any later date they will be able to use the powers that the Bill devolves to them if they feel that changes are needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) graphically described the problems that her constituents are experiencing and the importance of the Bill to them. She said that this issue was at the top of their agenda, and I commend the amount of work that she has done to ensure that their concerns are raised effectively. She made a number of points, many of which will be dealt with in Committee. Specifically, she asked for clarification of the public interest determination. The quality contracts schemes and how public interest will be determined by the approvals board are contained in clause 19, which sets out the clear public interest criteria that must be met in making a scheme. The Department will publish guidance to assist both local authorities and the approvals board. Indeed, we published the first draft of that guidance in December.

Clive Efford: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jim Fitzpatrick: If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall make some progress. I will try to give way toward the end of my speech.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) claimed that the Bill watered down the requirements for consultation on local road charging. However, local charging authorities will retain all their existing powers to consult interested persons and the public, and to hold local inquiries.

The Bill merely removes the Secretary of State’s powers to consult and hold an inquiry, and to require a local charging authority to do the same. Those powers were needed when the Secretary of State had the role of approving local services, as they enabled her to ensure that a proper local consultation process or inquiry had been held in connection with a scheme that had come before her for approval. However, in the absence of that approval role, there is no need for the Secretary of State to interfere in decisions by a local authority about what is best for its area.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire also claimed that the Bill was about national road pricing. It is not: the implementation of any such scheme would require further legislation, and the fact that more than 80 per cent. of current congestion is in urban areas means that that is where the immediate priority lies. The Bill focuses on giving local authorities greater freedom so that they can tackle their local congestion problems.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire also asked for clarification about historic vehicles, in which
26 Mar 2008 : Column 286
I know that he has a keen interest. Clause 50 makes it clear that the use of historic buses for tourists would not be prohibited: its provisions apply only to taxis and private-hire vehicles that are used to provide local bus services and which are deemed to be wheelchair accessible. Accessibility will be determined by the local authority, in accordance with any guidance issued by the Secretary of State. I hope that that clarification satisfies the right hon. Gentleman.

The amendment says that the Bill should be denied a Second Reading because it

The Bill gives local authorities a range of options to choose from, according to their local circumstances. Where partnerships are working, they can continue to flourish, but where they are failing to deliver real improvements in services—as is demonstrably the case in some areas—it is important that local authorities have other options at their disposal to deliver improvements that will benefit passengers. That is why quality contracts schemes need to be a more realistic option, and why the Bill will enable quality partnership schemes to cover service frequencies, timings and fares.

On local road charging schemes, it is right that decisions designed to tackle congestion should be taken at a local level. It is clearly important that local authorities consult those who would be affected by a scheme, but they must determine how best to engage with interest groups in their areas. Moreover, it is not novel to transfer revenue-raising powers to the National Assembly for Wales; it is already open to the Scottish Parliament to make provision for trunk road charging in Scotland. Any proposals for charging on Welsh trunk roads would be subject to full scrutiny by the National Assembly.

After the distractions posed by road pricing, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) returned the Chamber’s attention to the Bill’s central concern—the provision of decent bus services. He asked a number of questions about the details of the Bill, and he gave notice that he would return to those details in Committee. I am sure that he will do so.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made his usual thoughtful contribution, and we are grateful for his qualified assessment of the Bill’s usefulness, and for his statement that he would support it this evening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) then delivered a stinging rebuke of deregulation. In response to an intervention, he explained to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) that the blame for poor bus services could be laid at the door of previous Conservative Governments. He offered an analogy with arson, saying that one does not blame the fire brigade that tackles an arson fire: instead, one blames the arsonist responsible for it.

Next Section Index Home Page