Local Transport Bill

Commons Hansard
26 Mar 2008

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I rise to support the Bill and oppose the amendment. My contribution will be brief, but I want to welcome the Bill. This Second Reading follows last night's approval of the financial regime for the new national concessionary fares scheme; together with this Bill, that spells a good week for public transport.

The Bill is long overdue, of course; as the Minister pointed out, the privatisation of bus services has led to a 20-year decline in bus ridership. Conversely, that has been accompanied by 20 years of healthy profits for the big five bus companies, which have cherry-picked the profitable routes, leaving thousands of our citizens with an inferior, and in some cases non-existent, bus service.

The privatisation took control from elected local authorities and left local councils with little power to protect local services, except at considerable public cost. Given that public subsidy to the bus industry provides 33 per cent. of bus operator profits and that every bus is subsidised to the tune of £35,000, the public have a right to demand a say in how and where services are provided.

The Bill begins to address the anomaly, and has the potential to reverse the decline in bus ridership. I say "the potential" because, good as this measure is, there could, as the Bill stands, be opportunities for bus operators to frustrate the desire of local transport authorities to provide better services to their communities. The system of approvals boards, appeals tribunals and possible judicial review, which is open to exploitation by bus operators, could delay the implementation of quality partnerships or quality contracts for years, during which operators would be able to continue to run unsatisfactory services or, in some areas, not to provide services at all.

Given that there is an urgency to improve public transport, attract motorists out of their cars, reduce congestion, improve local economies and clean up the environment, we cannot afford for progress to be unreasonably or unnecessarily frustrated in the interests of bigger profits for the bus companies.

I do not oppose private businesses making profits; on the contrary, I worked for a private business for more than 20 years, and I never thought it a good idea that my employer should make a loss. However, the profits in the bus business are very healthy - healthy enough for the bus companies to co-operate with the local authorities as the Bill intends without causing shareholders too much concern. The era of "take, take" by the bus companies has to be replaced by a system of sensible and responsible co-operation in the interests of all. I hope that during its consideration in Committee and on Report, the Bill can be strengthened to reflect the legitimate public interest that stems from the public subsidy to which I referred earlier.

Ms Dari Taylor: My hon. Friend's point is incredibly valuable. I know of bus services that are cancelled, delayed, taken off - nobody knows about it and nobody answers when we ask why. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that a system of penalties should be included in the Bill so that operators know that if they do not deliver, we will?

Mr. Clelland: I agree. The Bill does include penalties. The important point is that the penalties should be real, not ones that could be passed on to the bus customer or the local authorities.

The Bill also makes provision for the creation of integrated transport authorities that would replace metropolitan passenger authorities such as the Tyne and Wear passenger transport authority. It is vital that the new authorities be made up of locally elected councillors with the statutory power to ensure the provision of good-quality, comprehensive, integrated, public transport systems. They should not be frustrated in that task by bus operators or unelected quangos. If Ministers mean what they say when they talk about giving more power to local people and enhancing local decision making, they have the opportunity to make actions follow words by ensuring that the provisions of the Bill bring that about.

This morning, I welcomed to the House a group of students from Gateshead college, which is in my constituency. One of the issues that they raised with me was the lack of convenient public transport to get them to the magnificent new college premises on Gateshead quayside, and the cost of such buses as there are. I hope that the new ITAs will have the power to deal with the provision of such services and that, even now, the PTAs in the region can, in consultation with bus operators and other stakeholders, make progress towards the introduction of a new concessionary fare system across the North-East for young people in full-time education. That would do much for the young people themselves; it would also help close the skills gap and do much for the local economy.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does my hon. Friend agree that the young people whom we have met in the North-East have made an extremely valid case in favour of having such support from local authorities and the Government as they continue their education?

Mr. Clelland: Indeed; I confirm that. The north east regional youth assembly and its offshoot called Bus Buddies have done a tremendous job in promoting young people's use of buses in the region.

Ms Rosie Winterton indicated assent.

Mr. Clelland: The Minister is indicating that she has met Bus Buddies members, and I am sure that she is as impressed as we in the region are by the work that they have done.

The Bill also deals with local congestion charging or road charging, which, while it may have its place and may even be inevitable in some areas, must be preceded by the provision of much improved, widely available, good-quality, efficient and affordable public transport. The provision of the latter may well, to some extent, negate the need for the former. However, we have to face reality. Many people will still use their cars, and road transport will still be the major form of transport in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future. A properly linked-up, well maintained road network is an important part of local transport planning and provision - indeed, buses themselves need such provision - so roads will still need to be improved and, in some cases, new roads built. That, too, must be part of efficient transport planning.

I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government on introducing it. I hope that during its passage through the House it can be fine-tuned so that it can bring about the revolution in public transport provision that is so badly needed, and needed now, by our local communities.

2.10 p.m.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): 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.

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