There have been some positive developments. A new bus users group has been set up by the council, which is starting to act as a good conduit for complaints. Arriva
is now looking at adjusting some of the routes to ameliorate some of the major problems that have arisen. It is a helpful development that the remit of Passenger Focus has been broadened to include bus services, which have always been the Cinderella service compared with train services.
I appreciate that it is right for much of the detail to be resolved at the local level rather than coming before Parliament, but I have sought to raise this subject in the House because I think we can learn some lessons from this unhappy state of affairs that may be helpful across other areas of the country. The Minister has kindly indicated that he will look at the notification period and I hope that that might be extended to review the process of consultation, as different groups in the affected constituency must be involved if there is to be a major restructuring of the bus network. I suggest that that should include not just unitary authority councils, but parish and town councils, and I also suggest it should include the local hospital and GP practices, because if people are unable to get to their appointments in time, that is a serious public health issue. It is vital that schools are involved as well, because if pupils cannot get in to sit their exams on time, or simply cannot arrive on time for ordinary classes, that is an issue. Milton Keynes has such a low housing density that schools have large catchment areas, so pupils have to travel considerable distances.
Mark Lancaster: There might have been more than 450 people at the meeting that my hon. Friend and I attended. Does he agree that they expressed great anger that there was almost no consultation and that they did not have the opportunity to make their voice heard about the changes that were made?
There is a trade-off between having a fast route between any two points in a city and having the route go through the main residential areas, but it is surely not beyond wit and wisdom to have a two-tier service with, perhaps, one express bus that does not call everywhere and the next bus as a stopping service that goes to all the different residential areas. These details should be worked out between the operators, the council and the different groups that I have identified, and I would also include local employers in the consultation. I am pleased that the coalition Government agreement has a provision to encourage greater co-operation between councils and bus operators, and I am interested to hear what further comments on that the Minister might be able to make.
Finally, I ask the Minister to take account of the evidence from Milton Keynes and other areas where there are bus problems and to look again at the effectiveness of the provisions of the Local Transport Act 2008, particularly in relation to quality partnerships and contracts. I know they were introduced fairly recently, but I think it is appropriate now to review their effectiveness and consider what further changes might be made.
The decentralisation Bill is due later this year. We want to encourage greater devolution and decentralisation, and also open-source planning that leads to properly sustainable communities. I hope that that Bill might be an appropriate vehicle through which to address the changes I have discussed in this debate.
I do not believe it is right for central Government to be overly prescriptive in determining what bus system operates in what area. What works in one area might not be applicable elsewhere, and, as I have said, Milton Keynes is unique in its design. However, I hope that by raising this subject I have brought to the Minister's attention the fact that there is serious disquiet in Milton Keynes, and I would be grateful to learn of any steps he might take to encourage greater co-operation and consultation. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue, and I hope my postbag on it will start to decline after this debate.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) on securing this Adjournment debate and on the effective way in which he presented his case. I understand that he is a keen marathon runner, so he will be quite used to making his journeys through urban areas at high speed on foot. However, for the rest of us who only run for office, public transport is often required for such journeys, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the subjects he has raised tonight.
Buses play a hugely important role in our transport system. More journeys are made each year on buses than on all other public transport modes put together. Where a bus network works well, the bus can provide more than mere convenience. It is no exaggeration to say that a good-quality bus service can be a lifeline, particularly for those who do not have access to a car.
The best bus networks exist where local government and operators work productively together. However, for this to happen, central Government need to provide an appropriate legislative framework that enables innovation and creativity from bus companies, and provides local authorities with the flexibility to use their local knowledge to manage their bus networks in a fair and logical way. Local government needs to work closely with operators and the travelling public to ensure that we have a local transport network that works for everyone, and transport operators need to listen to the views of their passengers to ensure that their decisions reflect those views and the views of locally elected representatives.
Cities and large towns evolve and grow, and it is inevitable that local transport provision changes to reflect this. This is especially true for ambitious cities such as Milton Keynes, as evidenced by the extensive redevelopment of the Milton Keynes Coachway station, to be completed later this year. I suspect that that project will bring huge benefits to the city, and I very much hope it will inspire other cities to consider similar projects.
However, in respect of the specific issues my hon. Friend raised, I acknowledge that when changes are made to timetables, they should be implemented in a way that minimises disruption for passengers. While there is currently no requirement for bus operators formally to consult local residents, we know that the best operators work closely with passenger groups and local authorities to ensure that they are listening to the voice of the passenger when these decisions are made.
I am aware of the particular public meeting to which my hon. Friend referred. I have in front of me an extract from his local paper, which points out that hundreds of people vented their anger at that meeting, which was held at Christ the Cornerstone church on the Friday in question. I note the concern expressed there, as reported in the press: that there was no public consultation before the changes were imposed, that several services were axed, and that route changes left some estates bypassed altogether. The fact that hundreds turned up to that meeting demonstrates the importance of the bus network to Milton Keynes, and the wish for people to be properly consulted about bus changes in their areas.
Of course, there are times when decisions are made that inconvenience local residents. Even when a rerouted bus service results in more people having access to local transport, that is of cold comfort to those who find that the bus that used to stop outside their front door now does not pass through their neighbourhood. I certainly agree that if we end up with expensive signs and new bus stops that become redundant, that is not a good use of public or private money. However, I am keenly aware of the importance of stability for passengers. A passenger who catches a bus today wants to know that the route will still be running next week. With stability in the network, passengers are able to build up a habit of using the bus, and are even able to look further afield for employment opportunities, confident that the bus they rely on to commute will not vanish overnight. This predictability is of course in the interests of the bus companies themselves as they seek to grow their business.
The Competition Commission is undertaking a large-scale inquiry into the bus industry. Competition is, I know, a concern of some residents in areas such as Milton Keynes, where bus services are largely provided by a single bus operator. I do not believe that it would be right or sensible tonight to pre-empt the commission's report by introducing wholesale regulatory changes before it has published its findings. My hon. Friend referred to the Local Transport Act 2008 and mentioned the possibility of a review. In a sense, a review is taking place through the commission's inquiry, which is looking at the regulation of the bus industry. That, in turn, will advise Government on whether further changes are necessary or not. We await the results of that with interest.
However, clearly some areas can be considered while the inquiry is ongoing, and my hon. Friend has raised some of them today. The Department for Transport has just completed its own consultation to explore some ways in which changes to the regulatory framework may help. For example, we sought views on whether it would be appropriate to extend the notice that an operator is required to provide before altering an existing service-my hon. Friend covered that point in his contribution. Currently, a bus company in England is required to notify the traffic commissioner 56 days in advance of any change. That is not the case in Scotland, where a bus company is required to have provided an additional 14 days' notice to the local authority before submitting such an application to the traffic commissioner. I can assure my hon. Friend that I am actively considering whether it would be appropriate to adopt a similar arrangement across England as well, and I hope to make an announcement shortly.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, local authorities already have a wide range of powers at their disposal, including the power to tender additional bus routes where they deem them to be necessary. That already happens in Milton Keynes, as it does right across the country, and I am sure that Milton Keynes council is examining the situation closely. I am informed that 17% of the bus mileage in his area is subsidised in this way; that figure is broadly in line with the national average outside London.
All local authorities in England have the powers to introduce different degrees of local regulation, through the use of a voluntary partnership agreement, the introduction of a quality partnership scheme or London-style franchising through the use of a quality contracts scheme. There is no reason why partnership agreements cannot include requirements for the operator to notify passengers before making changes to services or fares. So, in a sense, the tools to achieve what my hon. Friend wants are available if Milton Keynes council and others want to use them. In my view, local transport should, in the main, be managed at the local level, where local knowledge can be used to greatest effect. I can give him my assurance that the coalition Government are committed to this decentralisation.
I am aware that earlier this year the south-east regional transport board recommended the withdrawal of funding for the central Milton Keynes public transport improvement scheme, and that that came as a blow for Milton Keynes council, which had set a stretching target to increase bus patronage from 9.3 million in 2007-08 to 11 million in 2010-11. I am sure that the local authority is investigating whether it is possible to seek other routes for funding this proposal, either in its original form or some variant thereof. I understand that the council is looking at directing some of the revenue it receives from parking towards improvements in bus services, as well as seeking improvements in punctuality through its new punctuality improvement partnership, and I welcome that initiative.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget statement confirmed the coalition Government's commitment to a number of major transport schemes, and I will take the opportunity to repeat that commitment today. It is not, however, only major urban transport investment that yields big results. In comparison with major projects such as the upgrade to Birmingham New Street station or the extension to the Manchester Metrolink, proposals to improve local bus services may seem, and indeed are, very small. But it is important that we do not lose sight of the significant impact, both positive and negative, that small changes can have.
Although every area of government is going to have to work in a more efficient way, a local bus network is vital to a local economy, as it provides access to employment,
goods and services for a huge number of people and more than 5 billion passenger journeys a day are made on local buses alone, so we need to ensure that the investment in services continues. Altogether, local and central Government provide about £2.5 billion in support to the bus industry, and it is important that we not only continue to provide financial support for services, but ensure that this money is allocated in a way that provides the maximum benefit across the board. Bus service operators grant, for example, directly provides operators with more than £400 million in support for bus services. The benefits of that grant are clear: it ensures that the bus network remains as broad as possible, while keeping fares lower and bringing more people on to public transport, with the obvious benefits of reducing congestion, lowering carbon emissions and improving air quality in our towns and cities. However, no matter how clear the benefits of such investment are, it is important that the Government get as much value as possible from every pound invested in services and it may be that we can increase the benefits of this grant even further. My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that I am considering whether it would be sensible to reform the way this grant is allocated, to ensure that it provides the maximum possible benefit for passengers. In general, I am determined that we should have a bus system that delivers good value for the taxpayer and good value for the fare payer.
Let me pick up on one or two points that my hon. Friend raised. First, I am pleased that the Milton Keynes older persons forum has been so active in this matter and I want to pass on my thanks to its members for their efforts in this regard. I am pleased that the new bus users group has been established and I hope that what I have said tonight, coupled with the steps being taken locally in Milton Keynes, will mean that we end up with an improved bus service and more satisfaction than was clearly shown at the public meeting attended by my hon. Friend and others. I know that my hon. Friend has been active in this case with Arriva and I hope that he will continue to be so in the interests of his constituents. I am sure that he will, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) will do likewise.
In conclusion, I hope that this goes some way to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South and his colleagues that I am considering a number of different options for improvements to the way central Government can assist local authorities in managing their bus networks. I intend to make further statements to the House once I have come to a conclusion on the best way to achieve our shared aims.