Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I am pleased that the Government resisted much of that campaign, because the campaign was based on a false premise. As the noble Lord indicated, the decline in bus usage started a long time before 1986, for reasons that had nothing to do with the ownership and condition of the vehicles or whether the driver was in a smart uniform. Since the 1950s, congestion and the private car—the two of course go together—have led to the steep decline in bus usage. I am glad to say that this decline has been stemmed in recent years in various parts of the country, although not always with the assistance of some local authority people who profess to be in favour of greater regulation of our bus services and object vociferously to the 1986 Act.

I must here inject a slightly political note. The noble Lord and his distinguished party, together with the Conservative Party, run the city of Birmingham. I wish he would pop up occasionally to Birmingham and tell some of his colleagues in the so-called “progressive alliance” that removing bus lanes and playing along with the private car network is not a sensible way to run transport in that city. But the progressive alliance is behaving in such a way and—in the opinion of many from that city, regardless of whether they are involved in the bus business—it is about as progressive as the Monday Club. But, no matter, that is the situation in the city of Birmingham. I would be grateful if the noble Lord would use his undoubted talents to change the situation.

Reverting back to the document, I think it eminently sensible that the voluntary agreements between the operators and the local authorities should be strengthened. I welcome the way in which the Government are attempting to do this. There is a very successful bus priority scheme in Coventry involving PrimeLines Travel Coventry. I mention that because I was the chairman when it was introduced—it is pure vanity on my part—but the scheme has worked very well. Not only did we change the livery of the buses—Coventry City play in sky blue and we thought that would be a good idea—but also, in partnership with Coventry City Council and the passenger transport authority, a very successful prime line service was introduced. However, because of the competition rules we were unable to talk to another operator—a perfectly legitimate operator—which wanted to introduce equivalently modern buses on that scheme. I am glad that there will be provision

17 Jan 2007 : Column 718

for sensible arrangements to be made, not to rig fares but to ensure that buses do not leave within two minutes of each other with a gap following.

I give an unreserved welcome to the changes. I am pleased that the Government have seen sense and are advocating proper partnerships. If passenger transport authorities want to fight a campaign that they can win and that will be supported by the bus industry, they should become highway authorities and stop the kind of nonsense that is taking place under the so-called progressive alliance in the city of Birmingham.

7.58 pm

Lord Marland: My Lords, as this is my maiden speech, please indulge me for a moment and allow me to thank the staff of the House of Lords for the very courteous and helpful support that they have given me in the past few months. I have made a few faux pas and I shall almost certainly make a few more, probably during this speech. I am grateful for everyone’s help and support. I also thank my sponsors for providing me with this great opportunity to sit here in this magnificent House. I hope that I can make a modest contribution effectively.

Twenty-five per cent of all European buses are based in the UK—105,000 buses in total—and they are 35 per cent less efficient than they were 20 years ago. These are staggering statistics which demonstrate gross oversupply and almost certainly a badly managed infrastructure. The Government, I fear, have not begun to address the legislation on the salient issues that need to be considered and, sadly, have not yet learnt that government is not a good business manager or long-term strategic planner.

Regulated enterprise is needed, where investment and commitment by operators are rewarded by long-term contracts or strategic quality partnership contracts, with local authorities operating within guidelines overseen and performance-managed by a government-designated watchdog, which could be traffic commissioners, not nationalisation by stealth.

Bus operators have carried out substantial investment in the past few years under tightly regulated controls, which, however, are about to be thrown out of the window because of concern over falling passenger numbers. London passenger numbers, though, are increasing. So what will the Government do? They propose to set up a franchising system like that in London and change existing contractual obligations. That is remarkably unfair. London has bus lanes, substantial subsidies from the mayor and, of course, the congestion charge. If the mayor cannot provide services as a result of that and a huge increase in passengers, he should be ashamed of himself. Talking of investment, he should certainly be ashamed of himself. It is quite remarkable that he has purchased a large fleet of bendy buses that he is now about to get rid of. That is a huge cost to the London taxpayer.

Does any new regulation help to get to grips with long-term problems? Has an emissions programme been established legislating for cleaner and

17 Jan 2007 : Column 719

environmentally friendly engines? Has the safety of buses been reviewed? Why is it that not all buses have seat belts, when they are compulsory in cars?

Is a strategy being developed to incentivise greater use of school buses? Currently we have serious congestion twice a day caused by people collecting children from school. In many parts of the country, parents are reluctant to send their children by school bus because of bullying, a lack of convenient stops and sporadic service. We have to ensure that school buses fulfil obligations to prevent those elements, and that there is a method of incentives to encourage parents to make use of the buses. What thinking has been done to work out what happens to those buses when they are not doing the school run? They currently sit idle in bus parks for the remainder of the day. They should be used for greater community benefits, particularly in rural areas.

I am grateful to your Lordships and to the Minister for generously allowing me to make these points, which I hope will encourage the Government to develop a long-term strategic plan for the benefit of communities, passengers and bus operators.

8.02 pm

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Marland, and to congratulate him on what I think were some very perceptive remarks about transport. He clearly has wide-ranging business experience, which is always welcome in this House, but the knowledge of buses and the transport industry that he has displayed in his modest contribution today is particularly welcome. It is my view that we have very good debates on transport in your Lordships’ House. In fact, we have three others this week, as noble Lords will be aware. I am sure that the opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, will welcome some support on transport from the Back Benches. We look forward to many more contributions on transport generally from the noble Lord, Lord Marland.

Was it not interesting how the House emptied as soon as buses were mentioned? That is not the first time it has happened, and I am afraid that it will not be the last. As other noble Lords have said, we have had a disaster with bus deregulation. I have a theory that part of the problem is that, with a few notable exceptions, very few politicians use buses outside London. That is a great shame. I am sure that the Government said in their White Paper that they had an obligation to make provision for the transport of those who cannot drive or afford trains, or who live where there are no trains. Buses can meet change in transport demand much more quickly and cheaply than rail, but, as other noble Lords have said, they have to be reliable, on time, convenient, cheap, comfortable and safe—without too many free-for-alls or an absence of buses, both of which are bad.

The noble Lord, Lord Marland, mentioned the success of London, which I do not see just as a result of the franchising process. It is linked to the control of traffic lights and bus lanes under one body—this House has debated this topic many times before—and

17 Jan 2007 : Column 720

with the information that goes with that. There is a vicious circle. If you have information about the services, that is good, as you know when the next bus is going to come. The new digital displays are great. The congestion charge has helped, too. All those advances could be achieved in other metropolitan areas—and I mean all of them, including congestion charging. They should all be the responsibility of one organisation, as they are here in London under the mayor. That system is extremely successful, and I hope that we can expect legislation soon that will put it forward as an option, certainly for metropolitan areas. I am not suggesting that we go back to the 1980s or 1990s when the councils ran all the services, but local authorities, PTEs or, in the countryside, county councils probably have a much greater knowledge of what services are wanted than has been seen in the delivery of services recently outside London.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mentioned the working time directive, complaining that it adds to the cost to bus companies of drivers. He will know that exactly the same thing has happened on the railways. They seem to have managed to get by, although at considerable cost. We all lobbied at the time to try to get that changed, ditto with the hospitals—there is a school of thought that a significant proportion of the additional costs of healthcare is caused by the directive—but we are where we are. We all have to comply. Frankly, if it is not safe for a train driver to drive trains for more than so many hours a week, it is certainly not safe for a bus driver to do so. We just have to deal with that. If it puts the charges up slightly, people will have to pay them, or perhaps there will have to be a greater subsidy. I do not know.

I also support the idea of traffic commissioners having greater involvement outside London. There has to be some kind of planning regime in encouraging bus companies to use new routes, avoiding the competition issues that other noble Lords have mentioned and having an appeal mechanism for when things go wrong. The traffic commissioners are underutilised at the moment; they could do a great deal more in the enforcement of road freight legislation. However, we are not talking about that this evening. That is for another day.

I hope that the working parties that have been set up as a result of the White Paper, which Ministers have recently publicised, will enable there to be a significant change—not all noble Lords are agreed on this, although we are getting quite close—in the use, quality and reliability of bus services outside London. I conclude by asking my noble friend when we can expect legislation to implement all these wonderful changes.

8.08 pm

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bradshaw for tabling this topic for debate this evening, not least because it has enabled us to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Marland, who I hope will become a regular member of the small but perfectly

17 Jan 2007 : Column 721

formed transport mafia in your Lordships’ House. I assure him that he need not worry about making faux pas; we make them all the time. Genuine mistakes are always treated in this House with patience and courtesy.

Any consideration of transport policy must include some serious thought about buses. Of all the journeys that take place by public transport, 65 per cent will take place by bus—although you would not know that if you simply went by media coverage, which is almost entirely focused on the railways. If one is looking to change travel behaviour and transport patterns in an area, the bus provides a far cheaper and quicker solution to the problems than more expensive longer-term alternatives such as rail or metro systems.

In his introduction, my noble friend touched on some of the structural reforms necessary to make the bus industry work better, but I have other points to make. Buses still suffer entrenched negative attitudes and we need to work very hard to change that. On that topic, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, rather mischievously misrepresented my noble friend Lord Bradshaw, who, in this House, has consistently pointed out that the failure of deregulation has been that it has not provided the competitive provision of high-quality bus services. No one on these Benches will argue that there is any place for emission-belching buses, driven by nicotine-emitting drivers, with or without tattoos.

One of the most visible forms of that negative attitude is the relative scarcity of a proper network of bus lanes outside London and a handful of towns and cities. As road space becomes more congested, it makes sense to use it in the most efficient way, and buses, when fully utilised, are the most efficient way of using road space. Reallocating road space will make its use more efficient, will speed up journey times and will send out the message that the bus is the favoured means of travel within urban areas. However, in this country, we do not see much priority for buses. As other noble Lords have mentioned, that is largely because of the division of transport responsibilities that exists in many areas. In London, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, the mayor has control of most of the transport policy levers. He was able to introduce congestion charging because he was in a position to deliver the improvements to the bus network that were needed.

Bus use is increasing in towns and cities where there is investment in bus priority because the unitary council has control over the whole package or, in areas such as Nottingham, because the city and county councils have worked together and have a set of shared objectives. Together they have been able to give bus operators confidence in investing in the fleet. PTAs have been slow to develop quality partnerships, for which they have been criticised. However, to a large extent they are not able to deliver their side of the bargain because they do not have control over the highway network, which remains in the hands of the constituent local authorities. Certainly, if road-user

17 Jan 2007 : Column 722

charging is to happen anywhere outside London, the relationship between bus provision and the highway powers must be addressed.

Government must play their part, too. They have been very slow in implementing bus lane enforcement regimes. How often do we see bus lanes, which have been created in the teeth of much local opposition, rendered virtually useless by the constant presence of parked vehicles?

Lord Snape: My Lords, I agree that perhaps the Government should do more, but could the noble Baroness address the issue of Birmingham, where the bus lanes are being rendered useless as they are being taken away by the Liberal/Conservative council?

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, in our party we have a policy of localism and, if that is what the local party seeks to do, that is up to it. However, my message, which is entirely consistent wherever I go, is that bus priority is important. Equally important is the fare structure. The Concessionary Bus Travel Bill, currently going through your Lordships’ House, deals with some issues that will have a profound effect on the future development of the bus industry.

There is much evidence that the method chosen for distributing the concessionary fares grant is dangerously inefficient because it is based on local government grant assessments, which are very complicated, and not on the use of buses. That means that many authorities that have worked particularly hard to increase patronage are likely to face higher costs and will not be reimbursed. Therefore, they face a perverse incentive.

A further problem is that central government have, in effect, put a cap on the amount of extra grant that a single authority can receive from the Government. That means that, if a council receives a grant for a social services project, it will receive less for the concessionary fares. That is the net effect of the Government’s policy. It might save time at Report stage of that Bill if the Minister could say now how the Government will address those funding problems. Is he prepared to consider a system that would reward output—for example, the number of journeys made?

One final point on concessionary fares is that last week the Government announced an increase in the school leaving age to 18, which we on these Benches welcomed. However, that leaves the anomaly that half fares stop at age 14 or 16, depending on the operator. Given that young people, by definition, will not be in full-time employment, would it not be a good idea to include them in the scope of the concessionary fares regime? Not only would that be fair, but it makes absolute sense to encourage bus use among young people at a time when travel patterns, which might last a lifetime, could be established.

The bus remains the most ready weapon at our disposal to combat the problems of congestion, emissions and global warming, and to improve social inclusion. It does not involve far-distant technology and we could see dramatic improvements at a very modest cost to the public purse.



17 Jan 2007 : Column 723

8.15 pm

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, before I begin my remarks I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Marland on his maiden speech and on his insightful and eloquent remarks. We should all be suitably honoured that he decided to make his opening remarks in this House on the subject of bus transportation. I have no doubt that he will make constructive and thoughtful contributions to your Lordships' House over the coming years. On behalf of his Front Bench, I wish him the best of luck.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on securing this debate. Buses are a lifeline to many people. Buses are not just vital now, they are also a key way in which we can tackle congestion and improve the environment in the future. Therefore, it is indeed timely that we are having this debate today, given the announcement the Government made just last month regarding the future of the bus industry. I hope that in the limited time available today, I will be able to tease from the Minister a few more details of how these proposals will work in practice and what they will mean for the wider bus industry—operators and passengers alike.

I declare an interest as leader of Essex County Council. We have increased the provision of buses and the use of them rather more than the average council in the past few years. I also agree with the remark made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, on the funding from local authorities. No doubt we shall return to that during debates on the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill in the coming weeks.

Before I discuss these proposals, I should like to take a moment to remind ourselves exactly where we are on this issue. The Government produced a 10-year plan back in 2000, in which they set themselves the relatively ambitious target of increasing bus journeys by 10 per cent. That target was to be fulfilled by 2010. They also wished to improve the punctuality of services nationally, but against that they recognised the increasing decline of bus usage over many years, increased prosperity and car ownership, as we have heard during the debate, and the increased cost of travel on buses. I am guided also by a National Audit Office report published in December 2005. It highlighted the fact that, on either method, the Government were unlikely to meet their revised targets of increasing bus usage. The NAO reported on the problems of the administrative costs of procuring bus services, commenting that,

The Government recognised that that 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 and of increasing growth in every region. Clearly, something had to give. I am pleased that the new proposals published last month by the Government have at least shown that they are willing to bite the bullet, admit that the Government are failing in this area and bring forward some fresh thinking.



17 Jan 2007 : Column 724

On the whole, we on these Benches give the proposals a guarded welcome. As ever, the devil will be in the detail. Indeed, I hope that the proposals do not herald a return to the days before 1986, as I think was said from all sides of the House. Indeed, the previous Secretary of State said the same in another place. I hope the present incumbent also shares those views.

However, we have some reservations about the proposals, particularly any moves to make quality contracts easier to achieve, as we believe a partnership approach is the better way to serve our passengers in the long term. I am pleased that the Government recognised in the past the value of good partnership between local authorities and bus operators. We welcome the fact that there will still be strict tests and that the legitimate interests of bus operators will be safeguarded before any scheme can be approved.

On the Government's proposals for a new punctuality regime, it is important that bus operators and, for the first time, local authorities are held to account if passengers' services are failing. I have no problem with this. We in local government have a duty to provide the very best local services that we can. Serving our customers must be the watchword in all our future decisions.

On the review of the bus service operators’ grant arrangements, it is again right that the Government look to ensure the best use of public funds. We will have several debates on these issues in the next month or two. We look forward to the Government introducing legislation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I would like to know what the Government’s timetable is. I look forward to participating in the debates and seeing how we can together improve bus provision in this country. I welcome today’s debate.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page