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House of Commons

Tuesday 2 July 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Bus Services

1. Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): What action he is taking to improve co-ordination of bus services. [63711]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I am encouraging all the stakeholders to work together fruitfully to improve co-ordination of bus services. The Transport Act 2000 provides the framework through local transport plans, bus strategies, ticketing schemes and information strategies.

Ms Walley: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I hope that he will make his mark on transport in the new Department. It is important that we consider buses as part of an integrated transport system, but we cannot improve bus services when as many as 50,000 bus journeys are being lost in Stoke-on-Trent, as well as a large number in north Staffordshire. Will he look closely at the Transport Act 1985, which deregulated bus services, and at whether we need a quality contract in that part of north Staffordshire? Will he also look closely at the issue of revenue funding, bearing in mind the report of the social exclusion committee and the Chancellor's current comprehensive spending review?

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the review of funding announced in the Budget. Yesterday, we met the Local Government Association—including the passenger transport executive group—and the bus operators. I am very pleased with the positive work being undertaken between them. There is a very mixed picture across the country, but I take my hon. Friend's points on board. We will have a look at them and try to put them into the discussions, so that they can inform a wider examination. I must also say to her—as I have to a number of colleagues as well as to local authorities and to the bus operators—that there is clearly a diverse picture across the country, and we cannot take

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the position of one size fits all. We shall look at the points that she has raised, and I thank her for drawing them to our attention.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): There is clearly scope for improving public transport but, for most people in rural areas, private transport is not only the preferred but the only viable form of transport to and from work, shopping and so on. Bearing that in mind, will the Minister please be careful not to tilt the balance yet further against the rural motorist?

Mr. Spellar: I was surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman uncharacteristically omitted to congratulate us on the rural bus challenge, which has increased substantially the percentage of people in rural areas who have access to bus services. I acknowledge that there are different problems in rural areas, which is one of the reasons why we are considering flexible bus routing in those areas, for example, and greater provision of demand-generated community transport. All those issues are extremely important and are part of the programme. As he rightly says, car journeys form the majority of journeys—in urban as well as rural areas—and are extremely important. We need, and we have, a balanced transport policy, unlike that of the previous Conservative Government, whose extremely unbalanced transport policy was biased against public transport.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the competition authorities in this country are often a barrier to improving the co-ordination and integration of bus services? In the north of the Greater Manchester conurbation, First Group almost has a monopoly, resulting in my constituents having to pay 20 per cent. higher bus fares. The competition authorities do not investigate such issues, yet when local authorities want to introduce quality bus partnerships, the competition authorities perversely say that that would be anti-competitive. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me on this? What can he do about it?

Mr. Spellar: Actually, it is more a question of "What have we done about it?", because we have already held discussions with the Office of Fair Trading. One of the complaints of bus operators and local authorities has been that the provisions of the competition regulations—as interpreted by the OFT—were preventing them from engaging in sensible co-operation in the interests of providing an improved service. The legislation provides for exemptions in those areas. I was pleased that, as a result of the discussions before yesterday's meeting, there has been engagement with the OFT, which is doing away with a number of misconceptions. Many people certainly used to believe that the OFT would take a particular position; in some cases, people did not even bother to ask the OFT what its position was. The dialogue that is now being undertaken shows a more proactive approach by the OFT, which is to be welcomed. That will lead to an improvement in services and in dealing with the kind of problem that my hon. Friend has just outlined.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): Despite the initiatives that the Minister has highlighted, the fact remains that bus passenger usage is still declining in rural areas. Many

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people believe that the money that has been directed into these areas has been both negligible and badly targeted. What will the Government do to put that right?

Mr. Spellar: It is a widely differentiated picture. In some areas bus passenger usage is rising, whereas in others it is declining as ownership of motor cars increases, which is also happening in some urban areas. As I said, funding fixed routes may not be the most appropriate mechanism for dealing with this issue. Flexible routes may be more appropriate, and we are considering that capability within the regulations and from the traffic commissioner's viewpoint.

We are also examining enhanced community transport with a more flexible role. All those schemes have to deal with an inherently difficult situation, but we have redressed that to some extent with the rural bus challenge, which has had an effect in a number of areas. However, I fully accept that there is an outstanding problem.

Bus Regulation

2. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): If he will consult on the re–regulation of buses; and if he will make a statement. [63712]

3. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What action he is taking to promote better regulation of local public transport. [63713]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): We do not believe that it would be right to return to the regime that was in place before 1986. It would distract the industry from focusing on improving the provision and quality of services to attract more customers. The Transport Act 2000 gave local authorities various powers to influence provision. We will consider specific changes if necessary to overcome particular problems. For example, we will soon be consulting on proposals to remove obstacles to registering flexibly routed local bus services.

Mr. Mullin: Is my right hon. Friend aware that bus companies such as Stagecoach and GoAhead Northern, which operate in Sunderland, are becoming increasingly ruthless in their search for profits and increasingly brazen in their demand for public subsidies? They are also abusing their near monopoly position to run small operators off the road. Is he also aware that in the past few weeks in Sunderland they have drastically cut bus services after 6.30 pm and on Sundays, leaving whole communities isolated? Has not the time come to consider re-regulating bus services with a view to having them take into account the public interest as well as their own profits?

Mr. Spellar: Once again, I say to my hon. Friend that there is a mixed picture across the country, and that has been clear from my discussions with the Local Government Association and the bus operators. When we look into the route changes posted by the bus operators, we see that quite a number are marginal changes to timetables; some are about a reduction in services, as my hon. Friend rightly said, which is a particular problem in areas of social exclusion, especially those on the fringes of conurbations; and others are to do with enhancement.

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We are working together on those issues, which is precisely why I have asked local authorities and the bus operators to form a joint committee to work their way through this problem to ensure that we maintain a proper network across the bus system, and that we deal with issues of social exclusion. We should also recognise the substantial increase in the cab trade in many areas, which is providing a flexible transport service and may be more appropriate. In some areas it can be funded from the public sector.

It is a mixed picture, but if my hon. Friend's local authority wants to make representations to the LGA that we can include in these discussions that would be worth while.

Helen Jackson: Does my right hon. Friend understand that, in places like Sheffield, we remember the time prior to 1986 when buses were sensibly regulated and fares were sensibly organised so that there was integration of fares and services between buses, local trains and trams, if there was a tram? Does he understand how irritated people get when one operator can put its fares up, as First Group did recently, throwing into confusion all the integrated ticketing arrangements that exist between tram and other operators? In Sheffield, we think that a degree more regulation covering both fares and services would do nothing but good.

Mr. Spellar: As my hon. Friend says, there are considerable arguments for through ticketing and for the integration of ticketing arrangements. One aspect of our discussions with the Office of Fair Trading involved doing away with misconceptions that that can be prevented. We are happy to consider individual cases and to put them into the general examination. The key point is that we want to achieve a modal shift on to buses, always remembering that bus travel represents some 4.3 billion journeys compared with only 2.1 billion by rail. The figure for rail includes the London underground, as well as Sheffield trams.

Considerable changes in patterns of demand have occurred in many areas. For example, in the north-east there has been a steady demand in bus usage, but that is matched by the region's beginning to approach the levels of car ownership enjoyed by the rest of the country—thanks to the more progressive economic policies of this Government compared with those of the Conservative lot opposite. We have to deal with a complicated picture, but I am more than pleased to look at the details that my hon. Friend described.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): My constituents, too, see the bus companies as latter-day highway robbers. Fares are high, services are unreliable and the notion of a quality bus partnership would give rise to a hollow laugh among many of those who use the services. Is it not the case that a lightly and inadequately regulated private monopoly—that is essentially what the bus companies are—will never deliver quality, reliable public services?

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Mr. Spellar: Many areas are experiencing considerable increases in bus usage. For example, West Yorkshire showed a 4 per cent. increase last year and, with a different regime, London showed an increase of some 5 per cent. As regards London, it is interesting that having supported the Mayor, Liberal Democrat Members are now trying to dig him into a hole. That just shows what unreliable allies the Liberals can be. If they are so keen on public transport, I am surprised that they have not managed to sort out a sensible arrangement on the light rail between Bristol and south Gloucestershire.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): The Minister seems more than happy to become involved in regulating public transport everywhere—that is, everywhere except London. Does he agree with his erstwhile colleague, now the Mayor of London, who said not so long ago,

Does the Minister have any sympathy with the thousands of motorists, bus drivers and taxi drivers in London, who each day face ever-increasing delay and congestion because the Mayor has tinkered with the phasing of traffic lights and the alignment of bus lanes and road junctions to soften up the public for congestion charging? Does the Minister condone what the Mayor is doing and, if not, what is he going to do about the situation?

Mr. Spellar: One of the matters for which, fortunately, I am not responsible is the Mayor of London. I detect, as I did last week, the considerable enthusiasm for the Mayor that is felt by Opposition Members. However, I have a far longer track record in opposing him, in his previous incarnation as Ken Livingstone, than they do.

Andy Burnham (Leigh): It is typical—you wait for ages for a question on bus services and a load come along at once.

The Minister will be aware that Leigh is the largest town in the country without a railway station, but he may not know that we, too, have lost crucial bus services in recent weeks—one to Leigh infirmary and one to the Westleigh estate. I urge him to press in the spending review for funding to support bus services in areas where there is no other transport provision. In the longer term, does he agree that the solution is to tackle that other great Tory transport folly—bus deregulation?

Mr. Spellar: We have doubled the moneys going to local authorities through local transport plans. My hon. Friend referred to health facilities, and the social exclusion unit, in its report, expresses concern about access to employment facilities, education facilities and, particularly—following their consolidation—medical facilities. We are keeping a careful eye on these issues right across the country, along with the social exclusion unit, to see how we can get the right balance of public and private transport in various modes to ensure that we have mobility for all.

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