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Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but surely those buses are flexible by definition?

Lord Luke: My Lords, I agree that, in that sense, they are. The importance of rural bus services cannot be overestimated. For many, the existence of an affordable, reliable and regular bus route is essential to establish a decent quality of life and maintain contact with the wider community. That is particularly the case for the most vulnerable in society who have no car at all. But the problem spreads much wider—to the 30 per cent of rural people who do not have access to a car during the day.

The answer to providing the service, however, is not simply to replicate London in the regions, nor is it to throw money at the problem. The rural bus subsidy grant introduced by the Government in 1998 was, I am sure, well intentioned, but any new money was mainly fed into off-peak daytime trips, with little careful planning on what was really needed. More needs to be done than simply thoughtlessly adding new routes. There must be careful consideration of the accessibility needs of each local population, and measures must be taken such as linking bus services to other bus, coach and rail connections.

I feel compelled to flag up the issue of affordability. There has been an ever-widening gap between the cost of bus fares and the cost of motoring. That sends out the worst possible signal to the travelling public. That will be made even worse if the estimate of a further 20 per cent fall in the real cost of motoring over the next 10 years is right.

I ask the Minister for an update on the review of the fuel duty rebate currently being undertaken for operators of bus services. I hope that the ongoing review is not an indication of its imminent abolition. If the fuel duty rebate were abolished, bus companies would lose 300 million a year, which would be a severe blow to them and the public that relies upon

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those services. We are pleased that the Government took on board the Conservative proposal to extend the fuel tax rebate to community transport in 1999 and included it in their 10-year transport plan. It would be a shame to see that good measure go to waste if the rebate were abolished.

The Government's record of improving public services leaves much to be desired, but bus travel is an area where change and creating a better service can, and could, happen relatively quickly. I await keenly the Minister's response and am hopeful that he will share my concerns for rural services and offer convincing solutions.

12.58 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have really enjoyed the debate on bus services. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on introducing the debate with this Unstarred Question. The situation is a bit like the old number 49 buses in Brighton, which did not come very frequently but then all came at once: we now have five bus enthusiasts participating with a sixth enthusiast in one morning.

Buses provide the backbone of our public transport system. As many noble Lords have said, they are an essential part of the economic and social fabric of this country. To put that in perspective, buses account for two-thirds of journeys by public transport. That amounts to 4.3 billion journeys a year—more than twice as many as by rail and Tube together, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and my noble friend Lord Faulkner. But bus patronage is at half the level reached in 1970 and a quarter of the level attained in 1950, reflecting, in particular, the growth of car ownership and use. However, change and growth in public transport is probably easiest to achieve in the bus sector. It is, after all, the sector where innovation is at a premium and can be rewarded richly and most rapidly, with new fleets and new models bringing flexibility and new services where there is fresh demand.

Buses are an essential part of our drive to improve public transport. At their best, they provide the travelling public with flexible and attractive services, which they rightly expect. That is why we have a PSA target to improve local public transport, including an increase in patronage on buses and light rail of 12 per cent by 2010. We are moving towards that objective.

Achieving better and more widely used bus services is not an end in itself. It has an important role to play, not only in reducing congestion by providing an alternative to car use but also by improving the quality of our environment, with better air quality and enhanced liveability in many towns and cities around the country.

Buses also provide vital links for isolated rural communities, as mentioned by many noble Lords—particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, who made a plea for rural services, based no doubt on her experiences in Suffolk. They also provide an important link for peripheral urban estates and more detached communities, especially for those who do not have

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access to a car. Many people without cars depend on buses to reach vital services, such as health and education as well as employment. Better bus services can help to improve social inclusion for people who might otherwise find it difficult to access those services. However, like everything else, bus services must establish themselves as an attractive option on which people choose to travel.

As people become wealthier, they are able to make more choices. Increasing car ownership is an example. And with increased choice, people expect to be offered travel choices that work for them. That is why providing attractive reliable services is the way to win more passengers. After many decades of declining bus travel, as many noble Lords said, it is now on the increase. The early figures for bus use last year suggest that the overall rate of increase in bus use is rising not only in London but nationally. Bus passenger numbers in England increased by 2 per cent in 2002–03 and by 1 per cent in the previous year. That is why we are on track to meet our 2010 target for growth.

My noble friend Lord Faulkner referred to London with an impressive array of statistics from Transport for London. As I said, growth is taking place not only in London; bus use is growing rapidly in many other conurbations. I am bound to say that it has increased in Brighton by 50 per cent in the past 10 years, but it has also increased in Oxford by 80 per cent since 1988 and in Cambridgeshire by 7 per cent in the last year alone. In 2001–02, patronage increased by 7 per cent in York, 4 per cent in Bolton, 3 per cent in Leeds and 3 per cent in Nottingham. I am told that, even after some years of a decline in patronage on the excellent Reading bus services, since the middle of this year, those services are also seeing a month-by-month increase of some 3 per cent. Therefore, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, it is not inevitable that the level of bus patronage will decline, and his picture of generalised decline in most places other than London and Birmingham is simply not true.

The common factor in places where things are working is operators and councils working together to provide a better service. Success depends on operators and councils making the commitment and working together to deliver those improved services. It is clear that success goes to those who are prepared to innovate and provide a good choice for passengers.

When operators are willing to take the initiative and bring flair to what they do, a committed operator can transform services in its locality. Some impressive achievements were celebrated at the Bus Industry Awards 2003 in November this year. Trent Barton buses won the Bus Operator of the Year award. Trent Barton gives its passengers exactly what they want. It has introduced discounted advance single tickets, with three extra tickets being provided when 10 are bought at once. That reduces costs for passengers and speeds up boarding times as people use the prepaid tickets. The company has employed mystery customers to rate drivers on their presentation, attitude, customer care and courtesy, with drivers being nominated as Driver of the Month and Driver of the Year. The Calverton

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Connection service has invested in new vehicles and decorated the inside of its buses with profiles of the drivers, reflecting the strong relationship between passengers and regular drivers on that route.

The council's role is vital, too. It needs to have a grip on what is happening in its area and ensure conditions that allow attractive bus services to operate, such as bus lanes or park-and-ride schemes. That calls for determination and drive, and it means facing up to difficult decisions. But it must be done, and the results show that it is worth it.

An example of that is to be found in Leicester, where bus lanes have been introduced to support the planned park-and-ride scheme. It has reduced peak journey times for buses by nearly a quarter. In Cambridgeshire, efforts to gain public understanding and acceptance of bus priority proposals have been recognised by a European Public Transport Award by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions. Radical steps were taken to improve the city centre environment and increase use of public transport.

In Crawley, the Fastway guided bus scheme, connecting the town to Gatwick Airport, has opened recently, including investment by local authorities in the new infrastructure and related bus priority measures, and the operator Metrobus has provided new vehicles for the new service.

Guided bus schemes have also been introduced by local authorities in Bradford, Leeds and Ipswich, including, in one case, contributions to the infrastructure as well as services from the operators, First and Arriva. Those schemes have delivered significant increases in patronage—for example, 6 per cent in the year to March 2002 on Leeds' guided bus services alone.

The Government are doing much to support and encourage that success and establish the right conditions for it to be repeated elsewhere. We spend more than 1 billion a year supporting bus services in England, and the Government are determined to get the most from what we spend. We shall do whatever it takes to achieve that. We have established the Bus Partnership Forum, bringing together operators and local authorities at national level to examine what works locally and to encourage the same success in other areas. So far, the forum's work has included a network stability code, encouraging operators to change their services only at a limited number of agreed times during the year so that passengers are not faced with the dilemmas to which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred during his important contribution and so that unpredictable changes in the services that they use are minimised.

The forum has also produced Bus Priority: The Way Ahead, a resource pack on implementing bus priority measures to help local authorities to deliver better and more effective bus priorities that help buses run faster and more reliably. It has pooled an array of market research and attitude surveys to produce a distilled report called Understanding customer needs, which is on the DfT website. Its aim is to help bus operators deliver what passengers want.

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There has been some debate—no doubt there will be more in the future—about the wider legislative framework for buses. Most noble Lords who contributed to the debate made reference to that. We want to see more people travel by bus. For that to happen, there must be reliable, good quality services, designed to meet the needs of the travelling public. That needs councils and bus companies to work together in partnership. For us, what matters is what works. That is why we shall continue to keep the legislative framework, including that relating to regulation and deregulation, under review. However, we have made it clear that we must build on what works and not undermine it.

Thus, for example, we shall relax the regulations for tendered contracts. That will enable authorities to let up to 25 per cent of their bus subsidy budgets without tendering. That flexibility will help councils to obtain better use from their budgets.

If the law is getting in the way of increasing bus use, we agree that we should consider that and sort it out. But, often, it is not the law; it is down to councils and bus companies to work together. If Oxford can see patronage increase by 80 per cent and if Brighton can do it, one must ask why others cannot achieve similar figures.

In a couple of months' time we shall announce our decisions on funding for the kick-start schemes which have been developed by local authorities and bus operators that work together in partnership. These projects will pump-prime some new services with good long-term prospects, including the potential for significant passenger growth.

Let us face it; far more needs to be done to win people back to bus travel and the onus for that is on us all. If it is working we all need to ask how we can make it better. If it is not, we need to identify the blockages and to sort it out.

Another element that is vital to success is finding out what customers want and providing services that meet their needs. In the West Midlands the Passenger Transport Executive, Centro, has arranged with the Employment Service, for example, to put a member of staff into two job centres to help customers get access to job interviews and jobs. During the first five months of the scheme, May to October, Centro has issued some 209 day tickets to assist people to get to interviews; 147 first monthly travel passes to people getting into employment as a result of their interview and 46 monthly passes go to people in their second month of employment.

Centro also operates a company travel scheme, giving a 50 per cent reduction on the cost of an annual travel card to employees who are giving up an allocated car parking space to use public transport, and 189 people have taken advantage of that offer since it became available. Approximately 70 per cent of those people have then gone on to purchase another travel pass at the end of their 12-month discounted period.

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I ask noble Lords to put themselves in the passenger's shoes and it is easy to see what matters. They want the journey to be straightforward and reliable. That means making the connections work; sensible ticketing, a comfortable journey, helpful drivers and accessible vehicles. Above all it means getting them where they want to be when they need to get there.

For example, some operators and authorities have recognised that we need to get away from the idea that the only sort of bus service is the conventional one with a fixed timetable. In areas where there is a limited service, increasing the number of services from once a day to two or three times is not going to attract many people to use the service. In those situations we need a more flexible approach to vary the route so that passengers can be picked up or dropped off where it is convenient to them, such as the Corlink scheme serving isolated areas near Plymouth; the U Call service in Newcastle, the "three into one will go" scheme in Suffolk or the demand responsive taxi bus running between Fife and Edinburgh.

All of that explains why later this year we shall announce changes to the rules that will make it easier to run services where the route and time vary to meet the passenger's needs and in doing that we shall extend the bus service operator's grant to three types of service.

It is no longer enough to provide just a good service. Operators need to sell it to their customers with imaginative bus marketing. They will not know that they can use the service if they do not know that it is there. Strong marketing and providing good quality information are essential; and they work. Again, operators and local authorities each have a role to play.

A number of questions were raised during the debate. I do not think I shall be able to cover them all. Important points were made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on travel safety and the safety of staff. Our administration introduced the safer travel on buses and coaches panel which now works across the industry with local authorities and police to ensure that there is good advice on protecting bus crews and that drivers get regular and practical advice on measures to prevent incidents.

Questions were raised about the level of spend on the bus network. It is also the case that we know and recognise that there needs to be long-term and committed funding. For that reason we have to make up for decades of under investment. To do that we are committed to sustain high levels of funding over a long period, spending 180 billion of public and private money over the next 10 years. That means major investment in improvements to the reliability of the road network. It also means that we shall be able to provide new bus stations and public transport interchanges, mentioned by many noble Lords today.

To conclude, we shall invest in some 600 quality bus corridors, bus lanes and other bus priority measures, all of which noble Lords pressed for today. When

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people look at transport they tend to focus on cars and trains, but 4.3 billion journeys were made by bus in Britain last year. Buses are a critical part of our transport system and will remain so in the future. This Government are committed to the bus and we know that there is more we can do to achieve higher levels of usage in the future.

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This debate has been valuable in ensuring that we focus on these important issues. I congratulate not only the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on his contribution but also all noble Lords who have taken part on ensuring that this debate happens not only today but continues into the future.

        House adjourned at a quarter past one o'clock.


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