Bus Services Bill (Lords) Second Reading

Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)

I rise to support this enabling Bill, which has the potential to reinvigorate bus services across the UK and in Greater Manchester. Bus use has changed over the past 30 years. Since 1985, usage has fallen by half in metropolitan areas and by 30% in Greater Manchester. Meanwhile in London, where the franchising of routes was introduced, the number of bus journeys has increased by well over 200%. For almost a generation, service provision has been based on commercial profit-making routes, with local authorities being able to subsidise loss-making but socially critical routes. However, such services are ​increasingly under threat. In Cheadle, the X57—a vital service for my constituents that runs from the centre of Manchester to the small rural village of Woodford—has been all but lost. Various reasons have been cited, including falling passenger numbers on a service that is bedevilled by congestion along its route, which causes problems for the timetable.

When people move from buses to cars, congestion increases and services ultimately suffer. It is therefore imperative that we take the opportunity afforded by the Bill to reinvigorate our bus services. The Bill will enable local authorities—particularly Greater Manchester, with its devolved powers—to address current service shortfalls, to tackle congestion on our roads, and to provide a vital link for people to access work and town centre facilities. All that will further support our local economies.

Work is ongoing throughout the Greater Manchester area to encourage greater public transport usage. While I look forward to an extended Metrolink in the long term, I welcome the recent opening of the £165 million Second City Crossing, which is part of the Government’s £1.5 billion expansion plan for bus, cycle, rail and tram. In the short-term, however, introducing a smarter, cheaper, and more extensive bus service could have real benefits for constituents such as mine.

Mike Kane

The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point about the Second City Crossing. We talk about buses and improved public transport across the conurbation, but is it not time for orbital tram routes, which would particularly help constituencies such as ours?

Mary Robinson

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that what we really need is an integrated transport system that works for passengers, invigorates the area, and enables people to get to work and to enjoy their towns and cities.

Chris Green

While orbital routes for the tram network are a good idea, does my hon. Friend agree that they are not always possible? For Greater Manchester’s future, we must ensure that good bus routes go where orbital routes cannot.

Mary Robinson

It is important to look for ways to improve all services, even those in the most difficult of areas, and buses play a significant part in that.

As a Greater Manchester MP, I look at the Bill in the context of the ongoing devolution of powers to the area and the commitment to economic growth fuelled by the northern powerhouse. I do not underestimate the importance of an effective public transport network that supports jobs and underpins our local communities. Bus services are a critical part of our transport network, accounting for almost 80% of public transport journeys across Greater Manchester. More frequent and better-quality services are essential for Greater Manchester’s growth and would help local residents to contribute to and benefit from future economic prosperity.

Franchising presents an opportunity to introduce simple and integrated smart ticketing across Greater Manchester. It could also alleviate some of the problems in the current system of multiple providers. Some 22 different bus operators provide services across Greater Manchester. Each has its own fares and branding, which gives rise to inconsistency. Compare that with the single, unified brand that operates successfully across ​London. A change to the current system will allow seamless travel through joint-ticketing and a more stable service. It could also end injustices such as passengers having to pay a 10% premium for a ticket that can be used across different operators.

Furthermore, the Bill is an opportunity to improve disability access and, importantly, disability training, so that drivers know the importance of where to pull into at bus stops and how to provide the best service for people with disabilities. The Bill will encourage a joined-up approach between local authorities, and it is important that disability access issues are properly considered, whether through audio-visual announcements or just by giving people with disabilities the time and space to access services.

Rob Marris

Franchising—I would say that there are four ways to provide a service without franchising in the area—can also cover emission standards, which is particularly important in metropolitan areas.

Mary Robinson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point, which I will discuss later.

People want passenger-friendly bus services, which is about not only how information is delivered, but having good-quality information available in the first place. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who is no longer in the Chamber, about the importance of open data. Open data can allow passengers more easily to compare offers from various providers, thereby increasing their confidence in the service they can expect and when they can expect it. At present, bus operators have no obligation to provide information about fares, except at the point of boarding, or how routes are performing. Live information via information screens at waiting stops and smartphone apps is key to empowering passengers, encouraging the use of services, and allowing operators to understand local needs better so that services can be improved.

Addressing air quality is a key aspect of the Bill. Poor air quality contributes to an estimated 1,000 early mortalities a year across Greater Manchester. The increased use of public transport will clearly help to address the problem, so I welcome its being part of the Greater Manchester 2040 strategy. Air quality is particularly important in Cheadle, where the local pinch point at the Gatley-Kingsway junction causes a great deal of congestion and misery for local road users and commuters. More people using buses, and combined authorities having the ability to set minimum standards for bus fleets across the region, have the potential to reduce dangerous emissions.

Andy Burnham

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady. Members on both sides of the House have been far too complacent about the growing public health crisis that is due to air quality. The Government have issued a list of six places that they will designate as clean air zones, but Greater Manchester is currently not one of them. Will she support my call for Ministers to include Greater Manchester on the list of places that can introduce clean air zones?

Mary Robinson

It is important that the next Mayor of Greater Manchester makes a point of improving our air quality and decreasing congestion on our roads. I look forward to that happening.​

The A34 is the bane of many of my constituents’ journeys to and from work. I have spoken about the A34 and the Gatley junction on a number of occasions in this House, and our most congested road would significantly benefit from a reduction in single-occupant car journeys and an increase in people making journeys by bus.

It is vital that the Bill works for my constituents by changing attitudes towards public transport, and improving services through increased reliability and allowing the introduction of a more seamless smart ticketing system. For Greater Manchester, it is important that no obstacles are placed in the way of our enacting the Bill ahead of the mayoral election in May so that the Conservative candidate, Sean Anstee, may continue the improvements already instigated by this Conservative Government.

The Bill is a revolutionary step for Greater Manchester, its population and its further growth. Regionally, we need a better, more integrated bus service to encourage a more user-friendly public transport system, and I am pleased to support the Bill.